September 26, 2005 12:00 PM

Any fan of Grand Theft Auto would recognize the scene—dead cops, splattered blood, the shooter peeling away in a stolen police cruiser. But this was no grisly video game; this mayhem was all too real. On June 7, 2003, 18-year-old Devin Moore—taken to the Fayette, Ala., police station after an officer found him sleeping in a stolen car at 3 a.m.—yanked a .40-cal. Glock-23 from the belt holster of one of the officers and, inexplicably, opened fire. He shot two cops and a dispatcher—all point-blank, all in the head—wiping out the station’s entire night crew in a span of minutes, then fled in a police cruiser. Arrested in a field hours later, Moore seemed chillingly philosophical, saying, “Life is like a video game. Everybody’s got to die sometime.”

Still reeling from the rampage, the people of tiny Fayette found some solace Aug. 9, when a jury found Moore guilty of murder and, two days later, recommended that he be put to death. (Formal sentencing is set for Sept. 30.) But the question of what impact the game may or may not have had on Moore is still very much open. While the fact that he was an avid player was not allowed into evidence at trial because the criminal case focused solely on events of that night, a $600 million civil suit filed earlier this year by relatives of the victims puts the blame for the murders squarely on the video game industry. “Everything he did is right from Grand Theft Auto,” says Willie Crump, whose son James, 40, was one of the officers Moore gunned down. “Why would you make a game like that to show kids how to kill cops?”

Moore’s case is not the first to draw attention to violent video games. Among the cases where video games were at least partly blamed for murders are the West Paducah, Ky., student killings in 1997 and the Columbine massacre in 1999. Still, no definitive scientific link between video games and violence has been established, and the case will be a hard one. “These are not just your ordinary citizens who play a game for a while and suddenly turn violent,” says Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack, a Harvard Medical School professor and expert in computer addiction. “The ones who become violent are out-of-control to begin with. Other problems exist.”

Moore’s court-appointed attorney Jim Standridge argued that his client suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by severe abuse he had endured as a child. But, he adds, that condition caused Moore to go into a dissociative state on the night of the murders, and “he defaulted to what was obviously a script in his head”: Grand Theft Auto. District Attorney Chris McCool, who prosecuted Moore, calls this claim “hogwash,” adding, “There was no evidence that repetitive playing of a video game can result in programmed behavior that would cause someone to do this. I told the jury, ‘He’s not crazy; he’s just mean.'”

The night of the shootings, Moore was being questioned by Officer Arnold Strickland when, Moore later told police, “I started freaking out. I started looking at [Strickland’s] pistol and planning in my mind how I was going to escape.” He grabbed Strickland’s gun and shot him twice, once in the head. When Officer James Crump rushed to the room, Moore fired four more times. He then entered the dispatcher’s office and killed Leslie “Ace” Mealer, 38. Later that morning Mealer’s parents, June and Henry, heard frantic voices describing the shootings over their police scanner. “I kept hearing voices, but I didn’t hear Ace’s voice,” says June. “That’s when I knew he was one of the men down.”

The Mealers and Crumps have joined Steve Strickland in what would, if it succeeds, become a landmark civil case. The defendants include Sony Computer Entertainment America (marketer of the game station), Take-Two Interactive Software (creator of the game) and Wal-Mart, where Moore bought a version of the game. Robert Baugh, an attorney speaking on behalf of Take-Two, argues that there is no generally accepted scientific connection “between entertainment and any type of violent acts.” Steve Strickland, an excavator and part-time pastor, isn’t swayed by that logic. “True, a lot of young people will play these games, and the thought of what Moore did to my brother will never cross their minds,” he says. “We have to look at the one kid who will play these games intently until it’s ingrained in their mind that they can do this in real life.”

While the civil suit winds its way to trial (no court date is yet set), those touched most closely by the tragedy keep looking for ways to cope with their grief. Willie and Louisa Crump can no longer sleep in silence; now they have to have the TV on all night. The senselessness of the murders, says Willie, continues to haunt him, as does the loss of a son he says was the kindest person he knew. “At night all these memories come back,” he says. “You can’t block them out. They just come, and I just sit there and cry.”

Alex Tresniowski. Siobhan Morrissey, John Anderson and Nancy Wilstach in Alabama and Lori Rozsa in Miami

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