Child-porn prosecutions climb in Pima County as Internet begets a new kind of offender

2014-06-15T00:00:00Z Child-porn prosecutions climb in Pima County as Internet begets a new kind of offenderBy Patrick McNamara Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Child pornography was almost unheard of just 20 years ago.

Few outside of an underground community of producers and consumers of the material had access, and law enforcement efforts had driven that community deeply into the shadows.

But with the accessibility of the Internet, the demand for child pornography has exploded and the doors of access to the material have opened wide.

Today, police routinely arrest people for possession of child pornography, and prosecutors are bringing more offenders to court.

The Pima County Attorney’s Office prosecuted 38 people on child pornography charges in 2013, a more than twofold increase over four years.

In 1998, the County Attorney’s Office initiated seven cases against people suspected of child pornography, luring a minor for sexual purposes and related crimes. Last year, the number of new cases hit 51.

Child pornography boils the blood of Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, who calls it “an extraordinary exploitation of kids.”

The Arizona Daily Star contacted the Tucson Police Department for comment in this story. Despite numerous requests, no one from the department’s unit that investigates Internet crimes against children made contact.

But some psychologists and defense attorneys argue the criminal-justice system should distinguish between child molesters and “non-contact” offenders who look at pornographic images of minors.

Under Arizona law, possession of child pornography is punishable by up to 24 years in prison, the same punishment given for a first-time child molestation offense. The maximum prison term for a first-time offense of luring a minor for sexual purposes is 15 years.

Defense attorney John Sando of the Pima County Public Defender’s Office said that can lead to unfair descrepancies.

Tucson police arrested Sando’s client Michael Ray Hill in January 2013 after an Internet service provider notified them of possible child pornography downloads.

After an investigation, police searched Hill’s home and found child pornography on his computer. He was charged with 10 counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.

Court documents said Hill frequented online chat rooms geared toward gay teens, where he asked boys to send him nude photos of themselves. Hill, 28, ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor and was sentenced, under a plea agreement, to five years in prison.

Sando called the punishment a “travesty” because of Hill’s disabilities and cognitive limitations. Both developmentally and physically disabled, Hill was nearly homebound and unable to go anywhere on his own, Sando said.

He said Hill recognizes what he did was wrong and feels shameful. But the attorney questions whether locking a man with limited cognitive abilities in prison for five years addresses the problem of child pornography.

“What’s the danger he poses to the community?” Sando asked. “It’s such a ridiculous, illogical sentencing structure.”

The lengthy prison sentences for child pornography possession leave many defendants little choice but to plead guilty to one or two counts rather gamble at trial and risk a lifetime behind bars, Tucson defense attorney Rick Lougee said.

“The jury, if they see these pictures, they would want to convict the lawyer and the defendant,” Lougee said.

Pattern of escalation

In decades past, collectors of child pornography were almost always child molesters, said Dr. Paul Simpson, a Tucson-based criminal forensic psychologist who has treated sex offenders for more than 30 years and conducts mental-health evaluations of defendants for Pima County Superior Court.

They often used clandestine pornography collections as a bridge between opportunities to molest children.

But the Internet has helped create a new class of sex offender: one without a history of abusing children.

With pornography readily available to anyone with an Internet connection, Simpson said many people find child pornography almost by accident.

While noting that understanding the behavior does not excuse the potential harm offenders cause, Simpson said some of the answers could be found in how the human brain functions.

As pornography consumption becomes compulsive, users often fall into a pattern of escalation. He argues that they could benefit from intervention and therapy as part of their punishment.

“If treated early, there is a good chance of successful treatment,” he said.

But left untreated, he said, the likelihood increases that these offenders, too, will escalate their behavior and eventually molest a child.

“Tip of the iceberg”

Whether they molest a child or look at a photo, people who view child pornography helped to create a market that thrives on the abuse of children, LaWall said.

The sentences for child pornography possession are justified when considering the abuse victims of the industry have suffered.

“When I think about what was done to those children it doesn’t offend me whatsoever,” she said.

Two recent high-profile prosecutions exemplify how the market for child pornography has grown, claiming more victims almost daily.

In one, a Tucson man was sentenced to more than 24 years in federal prison for molesting a toddler and broadcasting the abuse on the Internet.

“It’s totally frightening,” La Wall said. “There is no question whatsoever that we are only encountering the very tip of the iceberg.”

Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or pmcnamara@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @pm929.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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