On Wednesdays a ventriloquist and puppeteer named Ronald W. Brown would have some children over to his trailer home in Largo, Fla., for a pizza party, then he’d put them in a van and drive to church. Other nights he’d do his act on a Christian-themed TV show called Joy Junction, sometimes warning kids against the dangers of “dirty pictures.” (In one broadcast he told his dummy alter ego Marty to “run away from anything that will give you evil thoughts.”) But when police officers and federal agents busted into Brown’s trailer last summer, they found that he wasn’t following his own advice. There were pictures of naked boys on his computer, and more on a CD in his sock drawer. Some children in the pictures were bound and gagged, and others appeared to be deceased.
A few weeks ago, Brown was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for each of the charges against him: three counts of possessing child pornography and five counts of receiving it. Some of the sentences will run concurrently, and in total Brown will spend 20 years behind bars. After that, he’ll be registered as a sex offender, denied access to the Internet, and forbidden from having any contact with a minor. This may not sound unreasonable: By collecting images of exploited children, Brown actively participated in their abuse. But the punishment meted out by Judge James D. Whittemore of the U.S. District Court in Tampa had less to do with what Brown actually did—soliciting child porn—than what he thought of doing. Like other online fetishists, Ronald Brown has been punished for his fantasies.
How much time should Brown have gotten? The penalties for possessing child porn vary widely from one case to the next, and depend on specific aspects of the crime: What kind of pictures were involved, and how many were there? Did the offender have a prior history of abusing children? Was he abused himself? Did he use peer-to-peer file-sharing programs to distribute criminal material? All told, the average punishment for possessing child porn was a little less than eight years in 2010. Brown’s sentence was 150 percent longer still.
That seems a little odd when you read the details of his case. Brown was 57 years old at the time of his arrest, with no criminal record and a long history of full-time employment. He spent two years in college, and he’d never shown any sign of drug or alcohol abuse. While he did possess several hundred images of child porn, including those with BDSM content, many were saved to floppy disks, so they were not easily viewed or distributed to others. All these factors would seem to mitigate his risk to the community. For criminals in his category, the recidivism rate is very low, and the federal sentencing guidelines for child porn—which are themselves notoriously inflated—would have allowed for a five-year sentence, with a recommended range of 6.5 to eight.
Yet one major factor counted against Brown. He wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pedophile, collecting photos of naked children. (In fact, he never showed much interest in having sex with minors.) Instead, he fantasized about killing kids and eating them. In the set of online chats that led to his arrest, Brown talked through elaborate daydreams of child cannibalism and imagined meals of “awesome tender toddler meat.” In one exchange Brown’s cyberpal envisaged torturing a little boy and said that “he would make a fine Easter feast.” Brown agreed: “Yes, his thighs and butt cheeks would be fantastic for easter.” At other times the chats touched on more disturbing questions of mechanics, like the best way to bind and kill a child. (“So, you’ll strangle or suffocate him?” asked the friend. “He would be toss-up between the two,” said Brown.)
It was these discussions that so enraged Judge Whittemore. “Perverted is not a strong enough word to describe what you have been engaging in,” said Whittemore at the sentencing, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. “Horrific, that is getting close. Unimaginable, that is getting closer.” Brown’s attorney tried to argue that the online chats were irrelevant to the crime of possessing child porn, since they were only role-plays. In real life Brown never harmed anyone nor took steps toward doing so. Whittemore disagreed: “The risk is that obsession becomes more than fantasy,” he said. “At what point … does that line between fantasy and risk of threat get crossed?”
In other words, the judge inflated Brown’s sentence because Brown’s desires were so twisted and disturbing. I think the judge has his logic backward, though. The online talk of eating children is certainly “unimaginable,” as Whittemore described it, but that’s because the crime of eating children almost never happens. If Brown’s chats had described a more realistic, more imaginable crime—a plan to molest someone, let’s say—they might seem to pose a greater risk.
But the number of real-life cannibals is vanishingly small, and that’s despite the fact that fantasy cannibals abound on the Internet. Brown participated in an online forum for gay necrophiliacs called CuteDeadGuys.net, where users share gruesome photos and discuss their fantasies of death and murder. He might just as well have gone to other message boards devoted to vore—the fetish for eating or being eaten. If the thousands of people who are active on these websites were really on the verge of cooking children, then shouldn’t we be seeing news reports of cannibalized children every week?
The misconstrual of an online role-play as a plot for murder can have disastrous consequences. In March I watched as Gilberto Valle—New York City’s “cannibal cop”—was convicted of plotting with online cronies to abduct and eat several women. (He could get life in prison when he is sentenced in the next few months.) As in Brown’s case, the government found little evidence that Valle ever tried to kidnap anyone. His plot, such as it was, unfolded over private bouts of instant messaging and files drawn up on his computer. That is to say it was his disturbing thoughts, not his offline actions, that got him thrown in prison. “This is not normal pornography for any normal human being,” the lead prosecutor told the jury on the trial’s final day. “That is not a fantasy that’s OK.”
When Brown was arrested in Florida, prosecutors threatened him with the Gilberto Valle treatment: They said they’d go full cannibal, charging him not only with possession of child pornography, but also with a far more serious crime—conspiracy to kidnap and murder a child. When Brown pleaded guilty to the counts of possessing and receiving child porn, the government dropped the conspiracy charges. Even so, his fantasies counted against him in the end.
There have been calls to fix the federal sentencing guidelines for child pornography in recent years so as to assign the stiffest penalties to those who most deserve them. A 468-page report prepared by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 2012 concluded that the existing scheme “no longer distinguishes adequately among offenders based on their degrees of culpability and dangerousness,” and that for some offenders, at least, the recommended punishments are “overly severe.” But even under the report’s proposals for reform, Brown’s activities on the Internet would have made him eligible for a longer stay in prison.
The report suggests that any participation in an online community devoted to child pornography should be seen to exacerbate the crime. Contact with likeminded fetishists online could “escalate the level of offending,” it says, while allowing child pornographers to be “appreciated, understood and acknowledge[d] by their peers … which in turn reinforces their deviance of fantasizing about children.” According to this theory, the more involved you are with one of these communities, the more dangerous you are and the longer you should be locked up.
There are good reasons to support this rule, says Michael Seto, a forensic psychologist at the University of Toronto and author of the book Internet Sex Offenders. The evidence in favor comes from two observations made by criminologists: first, that members of these online groups tend to promote the idea that child pornography is OK; and second, that hanging out with anti-social people more generally can make you more anti-social. But no one has shown directly that online child-porn communities really do make people more likely to commit offline crimes against children, Seto says. The case against the online subcultures comes from a “two-step inference.”
It’s altogether possible that online chats like Brown’s would have no effect whatsoever on his likelihood of killing or eating anyone. It could even be that finding a community of like-minded people offers some protection against criminal behavior. “If someone is truly isolated,” Seto says, “then some connection with other people who appear to understand them is protective,” although he adds that there is no evidence whatsoever that child-porn communities might actually prevent child sexual abuse.
Either way, the connection between online discussions and offline activity does not appear to be very strong. What evidence we have hints that men who engage in fantasies about abusing children are in what Seto calls an “overlapping but different population” from the ones who harm children directly. Neither looking at child porn nor chatting about fantasies online should not be thought of as a “gateway” to child sexual abuse, he says.
Since the relationship between talk and action remains opaque, the courts might be wise to reserve their judgment on online chatter. Through his actions on the Internet, downloading pictures and saving them to his computer, Ronald Brown gave indirect support to a network of child pornographers. He deserves to be in jail for that. But when it comes to figuring out his sentence, let’s punish him for what he did, not what he thought.