U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene rejected a plea agreement in a national pornography case Monday afternoon, torpedoing the settlement of criminal charges in three states and threatening to revive a far-reaching civil suit.
"I don't mean to be giving you a bad time, but I am troubled," Greene said. "It gives me great difficulty to consider whether the integrity of this court's being compromised."He said he is concerned about defendants getting equal justice under the law and about courts being bound by agreements reached in other jurisdictions.
U.S. Attorney Brent D. Ward, who argued for the plea agreement, said afterward, "He rejected something we weren't asking him to accept . . . It transforms it into something of a test of wills between the executive branch and the judicial branch."
As part of the deal, 17 counts against Consumer Marketing would have been dismissed in Utah. All charges were to be dropped against the company's president, Avram C. Freedberg, of Stamford, Conn.
The agreement was negotiated among prosecutors in three states, the defendant and "high levels of the Department of Justice," he said.
In the agreement, Consumer Marketing Group of Stamford was to plead guilty to a single obscenity charge in each of three states: Utah, Mississippi and Delaware. It would surrender its $100,000 inventory of sexually explicit video tapes and pictures and pay a $600,000 fine.
Greene wondered, "How did $13.5 million (the highest fine possible if there were conviction on all counts) get squooshed down to 600,000? Tell me."
Ward said a great benefit of the agreement is that under it, explicit material owned by the company wouldn't be going into "millions of American homes."
Prosecutors said settlement of the civil suit would have resolved a cloud that was hanging over the Justice Department's policy of going after alleged criminals in several districts at once. Presumably, the cloud is back over multidistrict prosecutions.
The plea bargain would have resulted in the largest fine ever assessed in a pornography case, with $400,000 recommended as the fine in Utah, $100,000 in Delaware and $100,000 in Mississippi.
"I reject the plea agreement under Rule 11-E," Greene said. "I so advise the defendant. This court is not bound by it, and you have an opportunity to withdraw your consent to it and withdraw your plea . . .
"I don't expect to have something presented to me that's contingent upon what other courts do."
Greene sarcastically assailed Ward. At one point, Ward said another recent pornography case was "more egregious," and Greene responded, "Like a semiprivate bath or just a little bit pregnant - you either are or you aren't."