Jay Evensen: Child porn victims can't get justice

Published: Thursday, May 1 2014 5:46 p.m. MDT

We all know nothing can be erased from the Internet, just as we know no amount of money can provide victims real restitution. But that doesn’t absolve Congress.

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“Amy,” whose real name remains hidden in court documents, described what it’s like to be an unwitting victim of child pornography because of her uncle:

“Every day of my life I live in constant fear that someone will see my pictures and recognize me and that I will be humiliated all over again. It hurts me to know someone is looking at them — at me — when I was just a little girl being abused for the camera. I did not choose to be there, but now I am there forever in pictures that people are using to do sick things.”

This description, from a victim impact statement, ought to be read by every lawmaker and judge in the land. Maybe then they can make all the people abusing her and the other “Amys” out there pay something approximating the magnitude of what they have done.

Instead, the statement’s tone of agony, humiliation and desperation is made doubly tragic by the fact that “Amy,” no longer a child, isn’t likely to get much justice, nor will she be able to put an end to the Pandora’s Box of trouble her uncle set loose in her life.

In recent days, the U.S. Supreme Court released a decision in “Amy’s” case that was filled with agonized reasoning of its own. A majority ruled that the amount of damages a court may fine someone who possesses child pornography must be limited to the approximate damage that person alone caused to the victim. “Amy,” whose uncle photographed himself abusing her when she was 8 and 9 years old and then distributed those images on the Internet, is owed $3.4 million, lower courts ruled. But no single defendant should be billed for the whole amount.

Her uncle eventually ended up with a prison sentence and a fine of $6,000. But then Doyle Randall Paroline of Texas was arrested and pleaded guilty to possessing 300 pornographic pictures of children, including two of “Amy.” A lower court, relying on the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, fined him the full $3.4 million. Paroline appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

“Amy’s” attorney, Utah’s own Paul G. Cassell, told the Washington Post this isn’t the first time police have caught men with photos of her. She has collected about $1.75 million from 182 of them, but he estimates 70,000 people have seen the photographs of the frightened and humiliated child.

What should Paroline’s portion of damages be? About the price of admission to a football game in a stadium built to seat that many people? How many years must “Amy” go on seeking a few dollars here and there?

“This approach is not without its difficulties,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a majority opinion that urged a more reasonable fine.

In a dissent that said Paroline should pay nothing, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and two other justices said, “regretfully,” Congress wrote the law in such a way that courts would have to pick an arbitrary amount for damages, and “arbitrary is not good enough for the criminal law.”

Only Justice Sonya Sotomayor, in her own dissent, said her reading of the law was that each defendant ought to pay the full amount. But all nine justices seemed in agreement that Congress should revisit the law.

In the days since the ruling, child pornographers seem hardly deterred. A New York City police officer, Yong Wu, was arrested for allegedly possessing and sharing lewd videos involving girls as young as 8, according to the New York Daily News.

The Huffington Post said Keith Farnham, a state senator in Illinois who recently resigned, was arrested in connection with the same sort of thing. An ABC affiliate reports police in Sacramento arrested a man believed to have put cameras in public restrooms at sporting events and at his workplace, and on and on.

“I want it all erased. I want it all stopped,” wrote “Amy.” But we all know nothing can be erased from the Internet, just as we know no amount of money can provide her real restitution.

But that doesn’t absolve Congress from rewriting the law to make sure people who perpetuate the suffering of children pay until it really hurts, with no ambiguous language.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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