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Courts weigh restitution fees for past victims of child pornography

It’s been more than a decade since “Amy,” as she’s known in court papers, was first sexually abused by her uncle. The abuse ended long ago and he’s in prison, but the pictures he made when she was 8 or 9 are among the most widely circulated child pornography images online.

Now Amy, 20, is targeting anyone who would view those images and asking for restitution in hundreds of criminal cases around the country.

Her requests and those filed by other victims are forcing federal judges to consider tough legal questions: Is someone possessing an abusive image responsible for the harm suffered by that child? How much should that person have to pay?

“It is hard to describe what it feels like to know that at any moment, anywhere, someone is looking at pictures of me as a little girl being abused by my uncle and is getting some kind of sick enjoyment from it. It’s like I am being abused over and over again,” she wrote in court papers. “I want it all erased. I want it all stopped, but I am powerless to stop it, just like I was powerless to stop my uncle.”

The issue of criminal restitution in child pornography possession cases emerged last February in Connecticut when a federal judge said he would order a man convicted of possessing and distributing child pornography to pay Amy about $200,000. The judge said it was the first criminal case in which someone convicted of possessing illegal images – but not creating them – would be required to pay restitution. The case settled for $130,000 before the judge issued his final order.

Since then, restitution requests have increased as more victims are identified – and as some have hired attorneys, said Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute.

Hundreds of requests have been filed nationwide, most by Amy’s attorney, James Marsh. He said as recently as five years ago, restitution would have been impossible because victims wouldn’t have known when someone was caught with an image of them. The 2004 Crime Victims Rights Act  created a system to notify victims. Now, Marsh gets several notices a day on Amy’s behalf.

Marsh is seeking restitution for Amy in 350 cases nationwide. Each request is about $3.4 million. She won’t get that amount in every case, but any sum collected would go toward the total to cover Amy’s counseling, medical costs, future lost earnings and lawyer fees.

Courts are divided on how to handle the requests. At least two Florida courts ordered restitution of more than $3.2 million, but others ordered nominal amounts. Several denied it.

In Minnesota last month, a federal judge ordered prosecutors to explain why they didn’t ask for restitution in a case involving images of Amy.

Some defense attorneys have argued that children are not victimized by mere possession of pornography or that their client had no direct connection to the victims. Others say it’s impossible to calculate how much harm one offender caused the victim.

After a federal judge found Arthur Weston Staples III jointly liable for $3.5 million in restitution for having an image of Amy, Staples’ attorney, Jonathan Shapiro, argued on appeal that there was no connection beyond “the fact that he possessed her image on his computer approximately 10 years after that image had been manufactured.”

Prosecutors should have to prove Amy was a victim of Staples’ act and would not have been harmed if Staples hadn’t had the image, Shapiro argued. The appeal is pending.

A federal appeals court recently upheld a Texas judge’s decision to deny restitution because prosecutors didn’t show how much harm the defendant caused. Other defense lawyers have said restitution requests
belong in civil court.

Marie Failinger, a Hamline Law School professor, said many victims don’t have the resources to pursue civil cases. She predicted it would take three to five years for courts to find a consistent way to handle restitution requests.

Meanwhile, victims’ advocates see restitution as one more tool for fighting child porn.

“The people who engage in this stuff need to be held accountable,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “People who are distributing this stuff, people who are downloading this stuff – when they do that, there’s a victim, and there’s a real harm.”

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