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Judge considers $2M restitution in child porn case

Published on -4/10/2013, 7:04 AM

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A federal judge in Kansas has been asked to award three child pornography victims more than $2 million in restitution for losses they suffered as a result of their explicit images being spread across the Internet.

But recent court rulings, including one last week by the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver, have raised questions about how much an offender can be forced to reimburse victims if the government cannot prove specifically how much harm the violator caused by downloading the images.

Brandon Hollister, 32, of Horton, Kan., pleaded guilty last year to distributing child porn and was sentenced Monday to five years in federal prison. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom also asked the judge to order Hollister to reimburse victims, who said being sexually exploited as children left them with permanent mental, emotional and psychological damage.

Prosecutors cited more than 300 orders for restitution already made to the same victims whose images were found on the computers of other defendants.

An FBI agent in Kansas City found 33 image files and 37 video files on Hollister's computer, including images of at least three victims who have been identified. Hollister admitted using peer-to-peer file sharing software to download and distribute child porn.

Among the victims whose images were shared was one referred to as "Vicky," whose request for reimbursement in an Oklahoma case was pared back sharply last week by the 10th Circuit, which said it was unclear how much damage the defendant caused by downloading her images.

The appeals court said it had no problem with awarding nearly $6,000 for attorney fees, but questioned how the government calculated the defendant was liable for roughly $5,500 in damages and sent the case back to district court to figure out.

"As a victims' advocate, I'm always dismayed to see a court say we can't justify restitution for the victim, but be sure attorney's fees are recoverable," said Carol Hepburn, a Seattle attorney who represented "Vicky" as a friend of the court in the 10th Circuit case. "What kind of thing is that to telegraph to the public?"

The 10th Circuit's ruling was in contrast to a ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last year that said the government does not have to prove how much harm an individual defendant caused when determining an amount of restitution.

Hepburn is in favor of forcing violators to pay restitution according to their means, with those who have the most resources getting hit with the biggest restitution bills. If the wealthier defendants don't think the award is fair, they can sue others who downloaded the images to get some of their money back, she said.

"All of these different theories that various district courts and circuit courts have postulated on this statute are going to be ultimately reviewed by the Supreme Court," she said.

Grissom, who made the request for $2 million in the Hollister case, said he doesn't feel sorry for predators who sexually exploit children on the Internet.

He called child sexual exploitation something that "a civil society cannot tolerate," and said multimillion-dollar reimbursement judgments in child porn cases -- even against people who don't have much money -- are warranted because of the vileness of their acts.

"In a case like we're talking about, someone could literally look at having all of their wages, or a substantial amount of their wages, in garnishment for the rest of their life," Grissom said. "Quite frankly, that's appropriate."

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