Interesting concurring opinion by Posner the other day in U.S. v. Craig. Basically, the defendant pled to four counts of creating child porn — which he created in an awful and horrifying way. He could have gotten 30 years for each count, but the judge gave him 50 (30 on one count, 20 on the other three). The defendant appealed the sentence. But it was within the Guidelines, and so was presumptively reasonable. And the judge didn’t ignore any mitigating factors. So the appeal was meritless and denied. A shocking sentence for a shocking crime, but hardly a shocking decision.
True to form, however, Posner went out of his way to make an economic evaluation of the sentence. What was it good for? Did tacking on the extra 20 years make any sense? Posner says no, and argues that judges need to take such things into account in the future when imposing sentences.
He engages in a straightforward cost-benefit analysis. The cost to society? $30K a year now, more than double that as the prisoner grows old and requires medical care. Plus the lost productivity of the man being incarcerated. The benefit? For that he looks to the purposes of punishment. But not all of them.
The Monitor reports that a 17-year-old Texas boy is now facing child porn charges, after getting a 16-year-old friend to send him a topless photo of herself from her cell phone.
Child porn is a very VERY serious charge. Even those who themselves would never commit a sex act against an actual child still go to prison for a long time just for downloading pictures that may be more than a decade old. You don’t ever want to get charged with it. We defend people charged with it, we know of what we speak. (Heck, we wrote the book on it.)
So when this whole “sexting” thing hit the news in ’09, we posted a warning that teens might unwittingly be exposing themselves [Ed.- Was that necessary?] to criminal charges that are in many ways life-ending.
Fortunately, there are prosecutors and judges out there with good judgment, who won’t go after teens for stupid teenage indiscretion with other teens. But there are also school administrators who can get themselves in trouble for possessing the photos during their own investigations.
Will this kid wind up getting prosecuted? Who can say. It’s up to that local DA’s office. The feds probably won’t touch it, but state prosecutors typically only go after (more…)
GEN. MELCHETT: Field Marshall Haig has formulated a brilliant new tactical plan to ensure final victory in the field.
CPT. BLACKADDER: Ah… Would this “brilliant plan” involve us climbing out of our trenches, and walking very slowly towards the enemy?
CPT. DARLING: How could you possibly know that, Blackadder? It’s classified information!
CPT. BLACKADDER: It’s the same plan that we used last time. And the seventeen times before that.
GEN. MELCHETT: Ex-ex-ex exactly! And that is what is so brilliant about it! It will catch the watchful hun totally off guard. Doing precisely what we’ve done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time! There is, however, one small problem.
CPT. BLACKADDER: That everyone always gets slaughtered in the first ten seconds.
GEN. MELCHETT: That’s right.
From “Blackadder Goes Forth” Plan A: Captain Cook
(Quoted scene begins around 8:30)
Because of the frankly horrible topic of this post, we thought we’d dilute it a bit with a bit of Atkinson, Fry and Laurie. But it’s on point. As this clip illustrates, it simply defies common sense to try the same thing repeatedly and expect a different outcome.
But in child porn cases, defendants and their attorneys keep trying the same thing over and over, and all that happens is they go to jail.
We’re talking about the “I was only doing it for research” defense. Pete Townshend of The Who tried it, to no avail (although possession charges were dropped six years ago today, when no porn was found to be in his possession, he was still put on the sex offenders registry for paying to visit a child porn site). Any number of less-well-known defendants have also tried it and failed. Washington Post reporter Lawrence Charles Matthews tried it, and he actually had done a radio series on the subject, and he still got time (and his case, U.S. v. Matthews, 200 F.3d 338 (4th Cir. 2000) specifically held that there is no exception for journalistic or other allegedly-legitimate uses of child porn). A law enforcement officer, Michael McGowan, claimed to have been doing his own investigation on his own time, and wound up getting 20 years. Talk show host Bernie Ward claimed he was doing research for a book, and got 87 months last year.
Even though the defense never works, people keep trying it. And so we come to erstwhile war hero Wade Sanders, the former assistant deputy Secretary of the Navy who came to national prominence when he vouched for former presidential candidate John Kerry, who just got sentenced to federal prison.
First, some background. CAUTION: EXTREMELY DISTURBING CONTENT FOLLOWS.
During an apparently typical investigation, an undercover FBI agent logged onto a peer-to-peer file sharing service (where members can copy files from each other’s computers), and searched for computers containing files with the term “pthc,” which is shorthand for “preteen hardcore.” The agent found several child porn files on Sanders’ computer, including a photo of a preteen naked girl lying on her back with ejaculate on her stomach, a 10 minute video of adult males inserting their penises into the mouths of prepubescent naked girls with one scene of ejaculation, and a photo of two naked prepubescent boys engaged in anal intercourse. It was easy to identify the location of the computer where the files were located, and a search warrant was obtained. On executing the search warrant, three computers and an external hard drive were seized, all of which contained many more equally disturbing photos and videos. (This is common. Most offenders who possess child porn possess a large quantity of it.)
During the search, Sanders spoke with the agents. When asked if any child porn would be found, he only said that he sometimes encountered it while downloading adult porn, and always deleted it. At no time did he suggest that he was conducting research that might explain any child porn they might find. And he wasn’t found to actually have any research notes or materials.
The evidence appeared strong enough that he decided to plea to the charge, under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(a)(4)(B). Under the Guidelines, his offense level was adjusted upwards for having materials involving under-12 kids, using computers, distributing materials, and possessing over 600 images, to level 29. He got the standard 3E1.1 three-level reduction for accepting responsibility, getting him to level 26, with a sentencing range of 63 to 78 months.
At sentencing, the prosecution asked for the low end of 63 months. Sanders sought probation.
In his own defense, Sanders claimed that he was researching child porn, but with a twist. He started by saying he’d gone through hell in Vietnam combat. Then, in 2004, he started supporting John Kerry for president, and was criticized by other veterans. This criticism made him feel betrayed, and sparked an onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. This PTSD manifested itself with obsessive-compulsive behavior. He then stumbled on an image of child porn, was horrified by it, and became overly protective of the little kids. So he obsessively began trying to find out where the kids came from and the conditions they lived in.
The judge, Thomas Whelan, flatly stated that he didn’t buy it. He found no evidence that Sanders was telling the truth about being involved in any research. Sanders never mentioned this during the search, either. And his own story didn’t explain the stuff he’d downloaded before 2004. Judge Whelan also pointed out that the “I was only doing research” claim, even if true, is still not a valid defense under the law.
So, although the judge did come down off the Guidelines sentence, Sanders still received 37 months in prison — at the end of which he will be 105 years old. In all likelihood, this is a life sentence for the man.
* * * * *
What puzzles us is why people keep trying this defense, when the law doesn’t recognize it and it never ever works?
These cases rarely go to trial. Like Sanders, defendants usually plead out because the evidence appears overwhelming. Still, appearances can be deceiving, and there are often ways to attack the evidence itself. Maybe not enough to justify taking the case to a jury, but perhaps enough to negotiate a better deal. (Not implying that was the case with Sanders, nor impugning his attorney in any way, of course.)
What is most likely to work, however, is not trying to explain it away. Rationalizing the evidence is only going to hurt your credibility, as it did to Sanders.
Instead, what is most likely going to work is to attack the evidence itself. This is time-consuming and expensive, and isn’t guaranteed to work. After all, investigators have the luxury of building their own cases, and cherry-picking the strongest cases from the enormous number of possibles they could charge. Ideally, you want to be able to give the prosecution a new way of looking at the evidence, so that they realize it’s not necessarily as strong as they originally thought. It takes deep understanding and analysis by experts, as well as compelling advocacy. But even in a less-than-ideal situation, the more you can put the prosecution on the spot to defend its evidence — that the photos are real, that they depict real people, that the kids really are minors, etc. — or the more you can raise doubt about how incriminating it is, the better your chances of a decent plea offer.
Prosecutors rarely change their assessment of what a case is worth based on excuses and rationalizations. They made up their mind based on the evidence they have. A good defense is going to give them a new way of looking at that evidence, to get them to re-assess the defendant’s culpability, their chances of success, or (yes) the amount of work they’re going to have to do if this goes to trial.
And FOR THE LAST TIME, PEOPLE, “I was only doing research” is NOT going to do the trick.
There has been a spate of news articles over the past week about a supposedly new teen trend called “sexting” — basically kids taking nude photos and sending them to each other’s cell phones and computers. The articles follow a Today Show interview with the mother of a girl who committed suicide last July after her photos started getting spread around. Most of the articles out there are of the “how do we protect our children from themselves” variety, but there is also a legal consideration. A lot of this activity could count as child porn, and could result in criminal prosecution.
Jesse Logan was a high school student in the Cincinnati area. Like plenty of teenage girls before her, she gave her boyfriend some nude photos. Unlike the Polaroids of previous generations, she sent them electronically, either by cell phone or by email.
Also unlike physical Polaroids, making copies of these photos would be free and easy. A potentially unlimited number could be sent off to others, just as she had sent them to her boyfriend. When they broke up, the ex-boyfriend sent copies to other high school girls. The photos spread around from cell phone to cell phone, and she started getting harassed at school. She became miserable, stopped going to school, and even went on a local TV station to tell her story.
Two months later, one of Jesse’s acquaintances committed suicide. She went to the funeral, then came home and hanged herself.
Hers is only the most tragic case making the news right now. But it happens all the time. There are reports that nearly half of all high school boys these days have seen nude photos of girls in their school. Some of those are spread by the girls’ boyfriends after a breakup, but most seem to have just been disseminated through normal teen chat.
If those ex-girlfriends were under 18 — and most of them probably were at the time, this being high school — then those photos are child porn. Distributing child porn, possessing it, and disseminating it to minors are all crimes that can get those high schoolers in serious trouble.
The consequences could be very severe. The ex-boyfriends and others who spread their photos could be charged with child porn, receive real jail sentences, and spend the rest of their lives as registered sex offenders.
Realistically, a teenage boy with a nude photo of his girlfriend isn’t likely to be charged with child porn. But someone who sends that photo to others, or posts it online, or otherwise spreads it around… that’s a whole ‘nother story.
It doesn’t even have to be intentional. Alan Grieco, a psychologist who treats Florida sex offenders, told Tampa Bay Online about a client who, when a young 20-year-old man, had dated a 17-year-old girl. He had a nude photo of her on his cell phone, which he did not share with anyone else. But after breaking up, his new girlfriend found the photo and sent it to the first girl’s parents. That young man was then charged with child pornography, and is going to spend the rest of his life living with that.
The kids who voluntarily send nude images of themselves aren’t thinking about how easy they will spread, how permanent such things are once they’re in the wide electronic world, and how much of an embarrassment they could be in the years ahead. That’s bad enough. But what’s worse is that the kids who receive, post and pass around these photos could be putting themselves in very hot water indeed.
The Wall Street Journal today reports on a developing issue in sentencing law: are child porn consumers being sentenced disproportionately high?
Justice Department data, referred to somewhat inaptly by the Journal, lumps viewers of child porn with those who distribute it. In the group of those convicted of possessing, receiving or distributing child porn, the average sentence now is 80 months in prison. In 1997, the average sentence was about 25 months.
The rise in sentences has been matched by a huge increase in the number of child porn and other child-exploitation cases. Internet crime itself has vastly grown as the Internet has become more ubiquitous worldwide, and so has awareness of the crimes being committed. Child porn itself has only been a crime since 1990.
Some see an unfair disparity in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines recommended sentences for those who view child porn and online predators who seek to engage in sex with children encountered in chat rooms. Of course, these are commonly the same people. But those who have not engaged in predatory behavior routinely receive enhanced sentences because of the sheer quantity of child porn materials they possess — it is commonplace for defendants to have huge collections of images and videos depicting sex acts being performed on children.
Sharing and receiving child porn is easier to catch, of course, than predatory behavior. Predators are typically caught after they try to go after a victim who turns out to have been an undercover agent. Not every chat room has an undercover, and not every predator picks out the undercover in the room. Subpoenas and data analysis, however, can lead to web sites and fserve locations where vast collections of child porn are stored and distributed. Monitoring the traffic of those sites can provide the IP addresses of those who downloaded or uploaded files. That leads to search warrants on homes, offices and computers, turning up the usually sizeable collections ultimately charged.
Not all images are going to be slam-dunk child porn. The prosecution must prove that an image really is pornographic, that it is a real photo or video and not simply PhotoShopped, and that it really depicts a child as opposed to someone who merely looks young. So prosecutors tend to bring cases against offenders with large quantities of photos, to make it easier to cull out a number of clear examples of child porn. Those with fewer photos, who thus don’t merit a sentence enhancement, are less likely to be charged in the first place, as prosecutors focus their resources on the strongest cases.
So it is unclear that there is an unfair disparity in sentencing. Mere possession may only have a base sentence of 5 years, as opposed to 10 years for the predator. But those most likely to be caught, and those most likely to be prosecuted, are the ones who are beyond the pale and for whom the Guidelines require enhanced sentences.
Nathaniel Burney writes The Criminal Lawyer mainly for his own amusement and that of his sexy sexy followers. Although he is brilliant, talented and charming, he's modest enough to admit that he's also dashingly handsome. You can learn more about him at his firm's website.
This blog does not constitute legal advice, and does not create or imply any attorney-client relationship. If you have a real legal issue, the internet is not a substitute for a real live lawyer. Your local county bar association should be able to recommend one for you.