Legal experts: Ruling benefits child porn victims

AP News
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Posted: Mar 25, 2011 6:01 PM
Legal experts: Ruling benefits child porn victims

Victims of child pornography around the country could have an easier time getting restitution from those convicted of possessing such images, according to a federal appeals court ruling this week in a Texas case.

But legal experts say the issue now may have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court because courts throughout the United States are split on how to award such compensation.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled that federal restitution law doesn't generally require victims to specifically detail how an individual defendant has harmed them in order to receive restitution.

Other national appeals court rulings, including in Georgia and Montana, have upheld restitution awards against individuals convicted of possessing child pornography. But those courts interpreted federal law to require that victims show a more direct connection between what a defendant did and the harm victims suffered.

"It's a big deal," Jeff Bellin, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said of the 5th Circuit's ruling. "This is clearly the most significant victory that proponents of this type of interpretation (of restitution law) have had in the courts so far."

In the 5th Circuit case, a woman known in court records as "Amy" is seeking compensation from Doyle Paroline, an East Texas man who was sentenced to two years in prison for possessing child pornography. Paroline, 45, was released in October.

Amy has filed hundreds of claims around the country, seeking restitution from individuals like Paroline who have viewed photos of her. Photographs of Amy, taken when she was 8 or 9, are among the most widely circulated child pornography images online.

Authorities said two images of Amy were among 280 images of child pornography found on Paroline's computer.

In December 2009, U.S. District Judge Leonard Davis in Tyler, Texas denied Amy's request to have Paroline pay $3.4 million in restitution.

Under federal law, victims of child sex abuse can be compensated for losses in six categories, including medical costs and loss of income.

Davis said that in each of these six categories, a victim must prove a more direct connection between any losses suffered and the actions of a convicted defendant. He said prosecutors failed to prove Paroline's possession of Amy's images had "proximately caused" the injuries for which she sought restitution.

If victims like Amy had to specifically detail all the losses they have suffered as a result of individuals like Paroline, "they would basically get nothing," said Paul Cassell, one of Amy's attorneys.

But a three judge panel of the New Orleans-based appeals court said victims only have to show more of a direct connection in the sixth category, which is related to any other losses suffered by a victim.

Davis' "conclusion is clearly and indisputably wrong," the panel wrote in its 18-page opinion. "Amy is entitled to receive restitution," the court said, adding that U.S. restitution laws were designed to make it easier for victims of child pornography to get compensation.

The 5th Circuit's decision reverses a previous decision by a different panel of the same appeals court that had ruled against Amy, who is now in her early 20s.

Stanley Schneider, Paroline's attorney, said he planned to appeal the ruling to the full appeals court and if needed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"If a person is selling pornography ... or distributing the image, that is (one) question," he said. "But if someone is sitting and doing nothing more than looking at images, possessing them, there has to be a causal connection" for the harm they have allegedly caused a victim.

Schneider said Amy did not know beforehand that Paroline had seen images of her.

Cassell, who also is a law professor at the University of Utah, said individuals like Paroline harm victims simply by viewing images of them.

"It's psychiatric death by a thousand cuts because she is being harmed over and over again by these faceless, nameless criminals who are looking at these images over and over again," Cassell said.

Cassell said about a third of the $3.4 million Amy is asking for, which is paying for lifetime counseling costs and lost income, has already been recovered from other claims around the country.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Texas, which prosecuted Paroline and opposed Amy's appeal, declined to comment.

Under the law, victims of child pornography can be awarded restitution. But federal judges around the country have had varied interpretations of the restitution statute, with some awarding large amounts, others nominal amounts and others denying it altogether.

"Do I think it resolves the issue? As an advocate, I hope it resolves it. But it will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court," said Meg Garvin, executive director of the National Crime Victim Law Institute, located at Lewis & Clark College's School of Law in Portland, Ore.