Child porn: prosecution problemsDate: July 18, 2005
Source: Bradenton Herald
And that's how he got caught. When Robert C. Cox used his AOL screen name to e-mail one of the images, the transmission was picked up by Internet Service Provider America Online. Cox's previously private hobby landed him on law enforcement's radar. All 11 images were found on his home computer's hard drive.
Cox pleaded no contest and was sentenced last week to one year in Manatee County jail and two years of sex offender probation. His computer activities are now a part of public record.
But in a world where technology is rapidly advancing and cyber criminals grow more savvy every day, it's impossible to know how many children are being exploited on computer screens without the exploiters or viewers being caught. And prosecuting the suspects often requires working with law enforcement agencies around the world.
"It's like a chess game," said Philippe Dubord, an agent in Tampa with the FBI's Innocent Images National Initiative, which investigates computer child pornography. "They make a move. We make a move. We have to work within the law. They don't have to."
Even with the evidence, Cox's case ended in a plea bargain in which he was charged with one count of possession of computer child pornography.
To get a conviction on possession of child pornography, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the images contain actual children somewhere in the world.
"These cases pose a lot of challenges," said Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten, who was the prosecutor in the Cox case. He sent e-mails to law enforcement agents in six foreign countries, asking them to verify the existence of the children in Cox's 10 foreign images.
Iten got back one witness statement from a police officer with the National Crime Squad of England and Wales, who confirmed the existence of a boy and girl depicted in one image on Cox's computer.
"In this photograph, (the girl) is no older than 8 years of age and (the boy) is no older than 9 years of age," the statement said. "I have seen and met both . . . on numerous occasions and can confirm that without doubt they are the children being subjected to sexual abuse in the image produced."
The Herald is not printing the names given for the children in the 11 photographs.
But to get the charge on that image to hold up in court, Iten would have had to fly the witness over from Europe.
"I'll come, but you have to pay the airfare," Iten said overseas witnesses often tell him. It's a cost the state attorney's office can rarely afford.
It could have been much worse for Cox, attorneys said. But he was not a creator of child pornography, a big-time distributor or someone whose perverse interests had already caused him to act upon a child, officials said.
Cox's actions were like trading baseball cards, said Iten.
"I've got one from the Felicia series," the prosecutor imitated. "What do you have?"
But when Cox sent the e-mail through his AOL account last fall, he set off a sophisticated chain of events.
Because you have to pay for AOL and provide payment information, Iten said, "it's very law-enforcement friendly."
AOL picked up the image on Oct. 1 and sent it, along with the screen name and 34205 ZIP code, to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which maintains a database of pornographic images, minors' identities and the law enforcement agency that has investigated them.
The national center then sent the information to one of the two Internet Crimes Against Children task forces that have jurisdiction in Florida. ICAC in Broward County determined the ZIP code to be in Bradenton and contacted the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
On Oct. 13, a sheriff's detective obtained a subpoena to get the subscriber information from AOL. Less than two weeks later, the account information came back with a former address and phone number for Cox. The detective then used the driver's license database to find Cox's current address, his vehicle and license plate number. He learned through interviews that Cox lived with his girlfriend and a dog in a condo on 3rd Street Circle West, according to the search warrant.
The computer was seized and was sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. FDLE made a copy of the hard drive, isolated the pornographic images of minors and sent them back to the Crimes Against Children unit in the sheriff's office. Two databases, one from National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and one maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, identified the images as child pornography.
Then Iten began navigating a myriad number of jurisdictions and decided how he would prosecute Cox.
Making a deal
There was only one "easy" image that led to the single count agreed upon in Cox's plea deal, Iten said.
An FBI agent in Missouri was readily available to be called upon to testify in court about the existence of the girl in the photo.
Iten viewed this image as the best chance to prosecute Cox and took the offer to Donald Grieco, Cox's attorney. If the deal wasn't accepted, Iten had a list of witnesses from foreign countries who could be called. He then would have had to turn to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which has jurisdiction over any images transmitted over state and national boundaries.
And that office has greater resources to call upon witnesses, meaning Cox could have faced several years of prison time. But the U.S. Attorney's Office isn't willing to take on every case. It would become a "hollow threat" should the U.S. attorney repeatedly decline to take the case, Iten said.
So the prosecuting attorney used that as a bargaining chip in his plea offer to Cox.
"From his perspective, it was in his best interest to take this deal," Grieco said. "He could be charged with 11 counts of a third-degree felony."
Because Cox admitted to authorities that he had the images on his computer, it was a hard case to defend, Grieco said.
But if the burden is placed on law enforcement to show that an individual knowingly kept computer child pornography, "I have a very good chance at beating it or severely minimizing the charges," Cox's attorney added.
An accused person might not be the only resident in a household, Grieco said, or may have received the images unknowingly and inadvertently.
But Grieco said Cox was wise not to force a trial.
"In today's atmosphere with what we see nationally, you're running a risk by rolling the dice," Grieco said. "Everybody is a lot more heightened not to be easy on these cases because of what we've seen in the news."
Grieco said he receives about four phone calls every six months from people charged with the possession of child pornography in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
A look at the numbers shows an undeniable growth in online child pornography.
In 1998, when federal law first mandated that Internet service providers send questionable images to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's cyber tip line, 4,500 reports were filed, according to Michelle Collins, director of the exploited child unit at the center.
Last year, the organization received about 112,000 reports. About 170 Internet providers are providing NCMEC with tips.
Of the 330,000 tips NCMEC has received in total, Collins said, 300,000 turned out to be child pornography.
Between 1996 and 2004, Innocent Images received 11,855 cases, with 3,316 convictions or pre-trial diversions, said Dubord of the FBI.
Law enforcement is continuously training to keep up with criminals' latest techniques. Dubord works undercover on the Internet in chat rooms to attract predators. He has young people teach him the latest online chatting jargon so he won't raise suspicions.
As technology advances and criminals are able to blur the line between a photograph of a real child and a created image, law enforcement and the law itself will have to adapt.
Criminals hide images within other images and hack into wireless networks that are difficult to trace.
"Regardless of how many people or resources you throw out, the problem continues to be there," Collins said. "Every stone you turn over, you are going to find something new that's going to lead somewhere else."
Not just an image
Local law enforcement wants people to be cognizant of the prevalence of child pornography on the Internet.
The viewing of a child in a sex act on a computer is a crime against the same child over and over again, they warn.
"I want people to know that this isn't just an image," Iten said. "We have to see the evil in the mere possession."
If Cox had committed his crime after July 1 and been convicted, he would have been far more likely to get a prison sentence. A new law took effect then, making possession of child computer pornography a Level 5 third-degree felony. Before this past legislative session, possession wasn't an enumerated offense and therefore dropped to the lowest category - on par with writing a worthless check.
Sgt. Rich Cunningham, who heads the Crimes Against Children...
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