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Justices debate restitution for child porn victims

The Uniteds States Supreme Court gets a makeover almost seven years after a piece of marble fell nearly 100 feet.

The Uniteds States Supreme Court gets a makeover almost seven years after a piece of marble fell nearly 100 feet.

(CNN) — “Amy Unknown” has been an unwilling if ubiquitous presence in one digital cave for more than 15 years. Images of her childhood rape, sexual abuse, and other criminal acts at the hands of a relative have been widely distributed in the underground world of Internet child pornography.

Her efforts to recover financial restitution from some of the tens of thousands who downloaded those images were at the heart of a Supreme Court case argued Wednesday, testing the interpretation and limits of a federal law designed to help those victims.

The justices showed great sympathy for the pain and suffering of the woman, now 24, who says she has struggled to put her life together.

But many on the court worried whether it was fair to hold a few individuals caught possessing the illegal images for full liability, when many more may be equally culpable for damages.

Chief Justice John Roberts spoke for many of his colleagues when he concluded this was “not a simple case.”

At issue is the level of proof — or causal relationship — prosecutors must show between the defendant’s conduct and the victim’s harm.

Lower courts have struggled to determine what share of damages should be paid in individual cases.

A Texas man, Doyle Paroline, caught possessing two images of “Amy” — the pseudonym given to protect the victim’s identity — argues he should not have to pay, arguing that he was not directly involved in the attacks on the girl or the distribution of the images.

The woman’s lawyers counter Paroline is liable for the full amount of the mandatory restitution she seeks — $3.4 million for lost income, psychological and physical treatment, and other injuries suffered as “proximate result” of the crimes.

A ruling in her favor could make it much easier for those like “Amy” to collect full damages from one or just a few violators, thus avoiding filing perhaps thousands of individual claims.

That could put the burden on the defendants prosecuted first to then try and recover money from fellow viewers of the material discovered later.

Her lawyers told the court Amy has spent the past five years or so filing about 250 restitution requests. She has collected about $1.75 million in amounts from $100 to $1.2 million.

Amy was 8 when the abuse, committed by her uncle, Eugene Zebroski, who shared the images online. He was convicted and given a 10-year prison sentence. He also was ordered to pay $6,300 in restitution.

A decade later, Paroline was separately discovered with 300 images of child porn on his computer, including two of “Amy.” He pleaded guilty and served two years.

Paroline was among an estimated 71,000 people worldwide who viewed the material.

During the one-hour arguments in the high court, the sticking point was interpreting Congress’ pre-Internet law and its provision giving those like “Amy” the ability to collect “the full amount of the victim’s losses.”

Paroline’s lawyer, Stanley Schneider, said his client’s acts should not be viewed in the aggregate when determining restitution since he was the only defendant in his prosecution.

Some on the court were skeptical.

“On your view if only one person viewed the pornography, that person would be responsible for the entire damages, but if a thousand people viewed the pornography and the harm was that much greater, nobody would be on the hook for restitution,” said Justice Elena Kagan. “How could that possibly make sense?”

Justice Samuel Alito: “It’s impossible to tell how many people have seen it and certainly impossible to see how many people will see it in the future. It exists and it apparently is impossible to eradicate it. Your answer is that in those cases, the victim gets nothing. I mean, that’s your honest answer?”

Justice Antonin Scalia: “The woman has undergone serious psychiatric harm because of her knowledge that there are thousands of people out there viewing her rape. Why isn’t your client at least responsible for some of that? Even without her knowing him, he had two of her pictures. He’s one of the thousands of people who viewed her rape. So why can’t she recover some amount from him?”

The Obama administration took a middle ground with Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben suggesting individual judges be given the discretion to formulate a reasonable amount of restitution. He said about $18,000 by each possessor of the child porn would be appropriate in this case.

But “Amy’s” lawyer, Paul Cassell, was adamant — the federal law specifically made Paroline liable for the full amount, even if he was not in a financial position to make payment.

Amy gave a victim impact statement in Paroline’s case where she said she lives in “constant fear” knowing those images were spread around the world, making her feel “abused over and over and over again.”

The emotional pain has caused her to require weekly psychotherapy sessions. She has since dropped out of college, and cannot stay employed.

The case is Paroline v. U.S. (12-8561). A ruling could come by early summer.

2 comments

  • Dustin Cavanaugh

    Not downplaying r*pe but this is stupid. It’s one issue on top of another and 2 wrongs don’t make a right and this woman is greedy and they are enabler her to not live her life but to take away others.

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