Criminal Justice

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Life Sentences for Child Porn Trafficking, Nixes Restitution

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A federal appeals court has affirmed the life sentences given to seven participants in an international child pornography trafficking ring, but it has vacated a $3.3 million restitution award against one of the defendants on behalf of one of the victims.

The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a lengthy opinion (PDF) Monday, said it didn’t find the life sentences so “grossly disproportionate” to the defendants’ crimes as to violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

But it did order the trial court to reconsider whether the actions of the one defendant against whom the judge awarded restitution were the proximate cause of the injuries suffered by one of the victims, a 4-year-old girl known by the pseudonym “Amy,” and, if so, to determine what amount of damages would be “reasonable.”

The seven men were part part of an international child pornography trafficking ring involving at least five dozen men in six countries who shared more than 400,000 images and 1,000 videos of underage children engaged in sex in 2006 and 2007. All seven were convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 on various charges including engaging in a child exploitation enterprise.

Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman wrote at Sentencing Law and Policy that the decision would not be particularly newsworthy but for the lengthy discussion of the issues surrounding child porn restitution awards about two-thirds of the way through the 130-page opinion. There, in an opinion by Senior Judge Peter Thorp Fay, the court reaffirmed its prior holding that end-user defendants may proximately cause injuries to the victims of child sexual abuse and, for such proximate cause to exist, there must be a causal connection between the actions of the end-user and the harm suffered by the victim.

“Any other result,” Fay wrote, “would turn restitution [under the law] for possession of child pornography into strict liability. We, like most of our sister circuits to consider the issue, decline such an interpretation.”

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