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His name isn’t important.
For purposes of this discussion, we’ll call him “John.” He’s one man out of the well over 10,000 people, most of them male, who have been arrested for possessing child pornography since 1996. It’s a fact, and a disturbing one: The FBI stated two years ago that child porn arrests are growing at a staggering 2,500 percent. The Associated Press’ Paul Elias quotes a defense attorney for convicted child pornography trafficker Max Budziak:
“It’s not pretty,” said attorney Michael Whelan, who represents Budziak. “There are exceptions, but generally speaking most prosecutions are of a sorry individual with a bad habit.”
“John” is, in the eyes of some, already one of those “sorry individuals.” He has a petty criminal record for multiple incidents, including battery on a police officer. He’s been involved in other crimes and minor personal dramas involving assault, stalking and similar problems. Some of these crimes have been dismissed; others have been pleaded down. Based purely on Internet research, “John” is probably not yet a felon, but he’s headed that way. Last year, he was arrested for possession of child pornography.
The chain of events that led to John’s arrest started with the seizure of his computer(s) and phone(s) for an unrelated crime. Evidently after his computer was taken, John remembered that there was some kiddie porn on his laptop that was downloaded by a relative. He informed the authorities of this and was ultimately arrested. Then he spent a few months in jail until his bail was reduced.
And then things got interesting.
When John finally left jail, he mounted a legal defense hinging on theories as bizarre as any floated in late-night talk radio. Confident that he understood the law well enough to outsmart its functionaries, and explaining that he was engaged in a form of guerilla warfare using technology and public opinion, John uploaded more than 30 YouTube videos, some of them more than an hour long, chronicling every facet of his case.
Typically, defendants are counseled by their lawyers not to speak about their cases in public. There are multiple reasons for this. Everyone hates attorneys until they need the services of one; everyone wants to see lawyers at the bottom of the sea until the time comes for legal redress of one’s grievances. The law is complicated and sometimes counterintuitive. The letter of the law and the spirit of the law may conflict where case history and past interpretation is concerned. This is why law school is both expensive and arduous. If it were so simple to interpret the law successfully, anyone could do it, and thousands of jailhouse lawyers across the country would be successful in their attempts to file their way out of prison.
When facing legal charges, you do yourself the most favors by shutting your mouth. Your lawyer will tell you so. If you speak about the case, you could inadvertently say something that will be used against you. You could make things worse. This is one of the reasons that the right to remain silent is held so sacred by Americans, and why our Constitution protects us from self-incrimination. Just as the man who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, the man who speaks at length about his crimes before or during a trial builds his gallows with his words.
And then there’s John.
John’s YouTube videos are often disturbing. Frequently shot in the dark, with John’s face floating before the camera as if disembodied, they range from agitated rants to methodical diatribes to whispering, indecent pillow talk. In one, a smug John proclaims that he will never go to trial and that the charges against him must surely be dropped; in another, he rails against the ‘corrupt” judge he has just been told will preside over his case; in still another, he flashes before his phone’s camera a variety of documents that he believes are “evidence” in his case, some of them simply print-outs of his own statements, painstakingly written out during his time in a jail cell.
John’s videos – as well as an online blog in which he careens back and forth between the timeline of his case and his thoughts and opinions on completely unrelated matters – describe in excruciating detail an elaborate conspiracy to frame him. By his own admission, John has something of a reputation in the small town where he lives. It’s the kind of town where almost everybody knows almost everybody else, and it falls to John to play the role of “bad boy.” According to John’s account of events, the conspiracy to convict him for crimes of which he is completely innocent involves state police, prosecutors, local citizens and families possessing power and influence, “business competitors” (though just what commercial business John believes himself to be conducting, or have conducted, is not entirely clear) and even the governor of his state.
All one need do, in fact, to be named as part of the conspiracy is to fail to take seriously John’s account of events. If you are a person of authority and John sends you his pile of photocopied “evidence,” you are a conspirator if you do not immediately act on what you have been given. John believes that his opinion becomes “evidence” the moment it is uploaded to the Internet. His entire defense, his attempt to achieve a trial by YouTube that results in his acquittal, is built on this notion.
And it just might work.
Our legal system is often too complex for its own good. No matter how insane a defense, no matter how ill-advised the actions behind it, on some level our framework for “justice” is obliged to humor this. The wall of impenetrable nonsense that John is throwing at his charges just might obscure the facts in his case. His persistent Internet activity just may muddy the waters of what should be a cut-and-dried case of, “Hey, there’s illegal porn on this computer.”
He might be found innocent.
He might go free.
And that’s the most disturbing fact of all.