TIME Crime

Remains Belong to Missing Virginia Student

Handout of 18-year old University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham
Hannah Graham, 18, is shown in this handout photo provided by the City of Charlottesville Police Department in Charlottesville, Oct. 18, 2014. Reuters

(RICHMOND, Va.) — Remains found nearly a week ago in a rural area of Virginia are those of a university student who disappeared last month, authorities said Friday, ending a search that left the campus and community on edge.

University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham, 18, disappeared Sept. 13 after a night out with friends. Her remains were found Oct. 18 about 12 miles from campus, in a heavily wooded area of Albemarle County that is home to rolling hills and horse farms.

The man Graham was last seen with, 32-year-old Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., has been charged with abduction with intent to defile Graham. His attorney, Jim Camblos, said in a voicemail greeting that he is not answering questions about the case.

The remains were discovered roughly 6 miles from where the body of 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington was found after she vanished in 2009. Police have said forensic evidence connects Matthew to Harrington’s killing, which in turn is linked by DNA to a 2005 sexual assault in northern Virginia. Matthew has been charged in the 2005 case.

“When we started this journey together we all hoped for a happier ending. Sadly that was not to be,” Graham’s parents, John and Sue Graham, said in a statement provided by the Albemarle County Police Department. “We are devastated by the loss of our beautiful daughter. … Although we have lost our precious Hannah, the light she radiated can never be extinguished.”

Graham’s parents also thanked those involved with the investigation and search efforts, as well as those who have sent messages of support. They said they don’t intend to make further statements or comment on the ongoing criminal investigation.

Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford said in a statement that the focus of the investigation now is to determine “what charges will be brought and the appropriate time to make those charges.”

“We are working diligently with local law enforcement on the investigation to ensure that we make the best determination for our community and the Grahams in the pursuit of justice,” Lunsford said.

Graham met friends at a restaurant for dinner Sept. 12 before stopping by two off-campus parties. She left the second party alone and eventually texted a friend saying she was lost, authorities said.

In surveillance video, she can be seen walking unsteadily and even running at times, past a pub and a service station and then onto a seven-block strip of bars, restaurants and shops.

Matthew was an operating room technician at the university’s hospital. He was also a former college football lineman and sometimes cab driver.

Friends have said they were shocked the “gentle giant” — he’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 270 pounds — could be suspected of such violence.

Matthew was co-captain of his high school football team and enrolled in psychology at evangelist Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, where he played on the defensive line for the Flames.

His college career took a sharp wrong turn in his junior year, when a fellow student accused Matthew of raping her. Matthew withdrew from Liberty on Oct. 17, 2002 — hours after a reported sexual assault behind the university’s sports arena. Prosecutors said the case was dropped when the woman declined to press charges.

Matthew returned to school in January 2003, enrolling at Christopher Newport University in southeast Virginia. He joined their football team that August, but on Sept. 7, 2003, a fellow student accused him of sexual assault on the Newport News campus. Five days after the attack, Matthew dropped off the team roster; a month later, he was gone.

University spokesman Bruce Bronstein said the matter “was thoroughly investigated by University Police.”

“No physical injuries were reported. The victim chose not to proceed with a criminal prosecution.”

The victim in the 2005 rape in the Washington, D.C., suburbs is cooperating with authorities, Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh has said. According to police, a 26-year-old woman was walking home from the grocery store about 10 p.m. on a Saturday night when she was grabbed from behind, dragged into a wooded area behind some townhomes, and sexually assaulted. The man fled the area when he was startled by a passerby.

TIME Crime

NYPD Officers Shoot And Kill Man Who Attacked Them With a Hatchet

Police Shooting
In this frame grab taken from video provided by the New York Police Department, an unidentified man approaches New York City police officers with a hatchet, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014, in the Queens borough of New York. AP

One of the officers is in hospital in critical but stable condition

A man was shot and killed in Queens on Thursday after he attacked four New York Police Department officers with a hatchet.

The assailant, who is yet to be identified, was seen taking the hatchet out of a backpack before assaulting the rookie officers around 2 p.m., the Associated Press reported.

One of the officers blocked the first swing of the hatchet with his arm, while the second took a serious blow to the head. The other two officers then drew their guns and fatally shot the attacker, with a stray bullet also wounding a woman standing nearby who has now been hospitalized.

The New York Times reported that the officer who was struck in the head is 25-year-old Kenneth Healey. Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a news conference that Healey had received “a very serious injury to the backside of his head” and was in critical but stable condition.

The man did not say anything to the officers before attacking them, and Bratton said a motive for the attack was still being established. The commissioner also said the officers were posing together for a photograph requested by a pedestrian when the attack occurred.

TIME Crime

3 Key Takeaways From Amnesty International’s Ferguson Report

Ferguson St. Louis Protests
Police officers in riot gear hold a line as they watch demonstrators protest in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 2014. Joshua Lott—AFP/Getty Images

It's the first time the human rights group has documented abuses inside the U.S.

Correction appended Oct. 24, 1:25 p.m. ET

Amnesty International made headlines in August when the international human rights organization dispatched a team of observers and advocates to document the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. that followed the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, the first time a delegation of its kind had investigated human rights abuses in the United States.

The resulting report was released Friday. It doesn’t shine any light on the altercation between Brown and police officer Darren Wilson or what led Wilson to kill the unarmed teenager. But there’s value in reading about the events in Ferguson through the lens of human rights. Here are three key claims made in the Amnesty report:

1) Lethal force was not justified

The report acknowledges that there are conflicting accounts of the physical altercation between Brown and Wilson, but says that none of them rise to the level that would have justified lethal force. “International standards provide that law enforcement officers should only use force as a last resort…Irrespective of whether there was some kind of physical confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer, Michael Brown was unarmed and thus unlikely to have presented a serious threat.” But several witnesses testified in front of a grand jury that Brown and Wilson did struggle over Wilson’s gun, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. If Brown had tried to take Wilson’s gun, as some evidence suggests, then Wilson may not have broken the law.

2) Ferguson police violated the human right to peaceful assembly

Amnesty notes that according to international law, the right of peaceful assembly is a basic human right. The report notes that law enforcement imposed several restrictions on this right, including a curfew and the “keep walking” rule, which was imposed on Aug. 18 to deter groups from massing. The report says that in the 12 days after Michael Brown’s death, 132 people were arrested for “failing to disperse.” The Amnesty delegation also condemned the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests, and the threats made against journalists and legal observers. But the protests in Ferguson weren’t always peaceful– there were reports of protesters shooting at police cars, throwing bottles at police, and numerous other violent encounters.

3) There is not enough data on police shootings

The report calls for data on police shootings to be broken out by race, ethnicity and gender in order to give a complete picture of how many black men are killed by police per year. Amnesty also recommends that Congress pass the End Racial Profiling Act and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

You can read the full Executive Summary of the report here: Ferguson Report Executive Summary

The original version of this story misstated the nature of Amnesty International’s work in the United States. The group has researched human rights abuses in the United States previously. This August was the first time the organization sent a delegation of observers, advocates and trainers to document unrest anywhere in the United States.

TIME Crime

What the Ferguson Leaks Tell Us About Michael Brown’s Death

Police face off with demonstrators outside the police station as protests continue in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death on Oct. 22, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.
Police face off with demonstrators outside the police station as protests continue in the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown's death on Oct. 22, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

A guide to the latest news from the Ferguson case and grand jury investigation

As a St. Louis County grand jury weighs whether to indict Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a series of leaks have provided new information about the skirmish that led to Brown’s death and ignited a national debate about race and police violence. A lot has happened since Brown died after a confrontation with Wilson on Aug. 9. Here’s a guide to making sense of it:

What’s new?

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained Brown’s official autopsy report on Oct. 22, which indicates he was shot near the right thumb at very close range. Medical experts interviewed by the paper said the findings may support Wilson’s contention that Brown was reaching for the officer’s gun inside the police SUV where their original struggle occurred. A separate autopsy conducted for Brown’s family by Dr. Michael Baden, a well-known forensic pathologist, concluded that none of the teen’s wounds indicated he was shot at such close range.

Wilson told investigators that Brown punched him in the face through the open window of the vehicle, according to the Post-Dispatch. In Wilson’s version of events, the punch prompted him to draw his gun and Brown grabbed for it. As they struggled over the weapon, Brown was shot in the hand. According to Wilson, Brown then ran away from the vehicle, so the officer jumped out to give chase. Wilson reportedly told investigators that Brown defied the officer’s command to stop, then turned and ran at him, at which point Wilson fired the fatal shots.

According to the Washington Post, “a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses” have provided testimony to the grand jury that supports Wilson’s version of events. Brown’s blood was found on the gun, on Wilson’s uniform and spattered on an inside door panel of the car, according to the New York Times. Other witnesses have provided divergent accounts of the incident, alleging that Brown was shot with his hands in the air or while fleeing. Protesters pictured with their hands-up became one of the iconic images of the unrest that wracked Ferguson in the weeks after Brown’s death.

What’s not?

In many ways, the leaks amplify what we already knew. From the beginning, the Ferguson police department has said publicly that Wilson shot Brown after the teen instigated a struggle in the SUV that made the officer fear for his safety. Independent witnesses have said there was a scuffle, though they differ on whether it happened in or near Wilson’s vehicle. Apart from detailed forensic information about Brown’s wounds, the autopsy includes a toxicology report indicating the presence of marijuana in Brown’s system. Previously released surveillance video shows Brown stealing a pack of Swisher Sweets, cheap cigars that are commonly used to roll blunts, from a convenience store shortly before the altercation with Wilson. But that incident had nothing to do with the confrontation, which occurred after Wilson ordered Brown and a friend to move onto the sidewalk as they walked down the middle of a street.

How important is this information?

The details of the struggle in the SUV matter. In Missouri, as elsewhere, a police officer has wide latitude to use deadly force if he has justifiable reason to feel his life is in danger. If forensic information and witness testimony support Wilson’s account that Brown grabbed for his gun, the grand jury—or, in the event of an indictment, a trial jury—would ostensibly be more likely to determine that the use of force was justified.

What don’t the leaks tell us?

They don’t explain the origin of the skirmish, which seems to have escalated abruptly. In describing the toxicology report, the Post’s sources say “the levels in Brown’s body may have been high enough to trigger hallucinations,” but there is no scientific link between marijuana and violent behavior.

Most importantly, the leaks do not provide new forensic information about the sequence of fatal shots. “What we want to know is why Officer Wilson shot Michael Brown multiple times and killed him even though he was more than 20 feet away from his patrol car,” Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Brown’s family, said in a statement. “This is the crux of the matter!” The autopsy does not offer any answers.

What’s going on with the grand jury?

Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, has said that he expects the deliberations to wrap up this month or next. The grand jury process has been unusual in a number of ways, as TIME reported last month.

Prosecutors declined to recommend a specific charge for Wilson, which is rare. Instead, they are presenting evidence as it becomes available, and allowing the grand jury members to determine whether it warrants charges of murder or manslaughter. (There are two options for each charge: first- or second-degree murder; and voluntary or involuntary manslaughter.)

All testimony in the case is being transcribed, which is unusual because it exposes witnesses to future legal proceedings. McCulloch has delegated the task of presenting evidence to two attorneys in his office in an attempt to neutralize allegations that he lacks objectivity. (McCulloch’s father, a police officer, died in the line of duty, and African Americans have criticized his handling of past police shootings.) In another rare move, McCulloch has pledged to immediately release transcripts of the proceedings. According to the prosecutor’s office, these decisions were made in the interest of transparency, though it may also be an attempt to head off criticism in the event that the grand jury declines to indict Wilson.

Is there a motive for the leaks?

It’s a criminal act to leak information about grand jury proceedings, so the number of leaks the investigation has sprung in recent days is conspicuous. The Department of Justice, which is conducting its own inquiry into the shooting, has condemned the trickle of information.“There seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case,” it said on Oct. 22.

The leaks have also raised questions about whether sources connected to the investigation are spreading this information to prepare the community for the possibility that the grand jury declines to indict. The information that has leaked suggests the likelihood of that may be greater than protesters realize.

How is Ferguson reacting?

The daily demonstrations are ongoing. Protests tapered off in the weeks after Brown’s death, but the Oct. 8 killing of Vonderrit Myers, a black 18-year-old shot by an off-duty St. Louis police officer, rekindled the community’s fury. (Cops say Myers fired at the officer first; forensic evidence released by the police department, including lab results that reportedly show gunpowder residue on Myers’ hand and in the waistband of his jeans, appear to corroborate that version of events. Myers’ family says they believe he was unarmed.)

Thousands of people massed in St. Louis in mid-October for coordinated protests following Myers’ death. There were some arrests and sporadic clashes between demonstrators and law enforcement, but nothing on the scale of the August riots. But it was enough to upset the fragile peace that had set in during September and on Oct. 21, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced the formation of a commission to address issues like race relations.

The recent autopsy and other leaks have fanned the flames in Ferguson. That anger is likely a mere preview of how the community will react if Wilson is cleared. “If there is no indictment,” said one protester, “all hell is going to break loose.”

Read next: Mourning Ferguson

TIME The Philippines

Witness Says Suspect U.S. Marine Didn’t Know Murdered Filipina Was Transgender

A primary witness in the high-profile murder case gave testimony to a Philippine Senate hearing today

A friend of murdered Filipina Jennifer Laude testified that the American suspect, who went out with the two of them on the night of the crime, didn’t know that they were transgender.

Mark Clarence Gelviro made her statement during a Philippine Senate hearing Wednesday and also identified U.S. Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in a photo lineup, reports online news portal InterAksyon.

Pemberton allegedly met Laude and Gelviro on Oct. 11 at a bar in Subic Bay, a port that often hosts U.S. warships. He was visiting for a joint military exercise involving 4,000 American soldiers and sailors. Gelviro claimed to the hearing that Pemberton was drunk but friendly, and that he “thought we were real women.”

The three of them then allegedly went to a motel in nearby Olongapo City, where Gelviro said she left the two others alone in a room. Gelviro claims that, a little while later, the motel cashier notified her that Pemberton had left and that Laude was unconscious in the room, her head submerged in the toilet bowl.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who chaired the hearing, later said she considered the evidence against the suspect “damning,” reports the Philippine Star.

The now almost two-week-old case has stoked massive criticism over a bilateral agreement that allows the U.S. to keep custody of military personnel accused of committing crimes on Philippine soil. Pemberton was transferred Wednesday to a Philippine military base, but is still being guarded by American servicemen.

“We have our own guards, and yet they don’t seem to trust them,” said Defensor Santiago according to Asia One. “And we’re in our own country, not America.”

Philippine President Benigno Aquino rebutted claims that local authorities were going too easy on the suspect at a foreign correspondent’s forum in Pasig City on Wednesday.

“He is not being treated with kid gloves,” Aquino said, “and the Americans, may I reiterate, are conforming to the [Visiting Forces Agreement under which] they have to make this person and others available for both the investigative and the judicial processes that are forthcoming.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Laude’s sister Michelle testified to the panel that the victim was not a sex worker. During the year leading up to her murder, she had barely been outside the house, Michelle said, claiming that Jennifer was subsisting on a monthly allowance from her fiancé.

Read next: Laverne Cox Talks to TIME About the Transgender Movement

TIME ebola

Here’s What Would Happen if Ebola Was Stolen From a Lab

Biohazard sticker on laboratory window
Adam Gault—OJO Images RF/Getty Images

The virus is considered a bioterrorism agent. But massive fines, jail time and a risk of deadly exposure may be enough of a deterrent

Scientists routinely study deadly pathogens like Ebola in order to find ways to fight them and discover potential cures. But what would happen if a sample of Ebola was taken from a lab illegally?

Under federal regulations, Ebola is considered a “select agent and toxin” that has the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety,” and it’s illegal to possess, use or transfer a deadly pathogen to another individual without a certificate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says John Kraemer, an expert on infectious diseases and the law at Georgetown University’s Department of Health Systems Administration. Obtaining that certificate requires meeting a set of biosafety and biosecurity requirements. And the penalties for failing to do so can be steep.

The government has levied fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars to laboratories that have violated the select agent regulations. In 2008, HHS docked Texas A&M University $1 million for safety violations at its biodefense lab. Individuals who steal a disease sample could face similarly steep fines and time behind bars. Under federal law, HHS can fine a person up to $250,000 for each violation and can recommend imprisonment of up to five years.

But there is an additional layer of sensitivity to handling Ebola. The CDC considers viral hemorrhagic fevers, which includes Ebola, a Category A bioterrorism agent. And since 2001, several bioterrorism laws have strengthened criminal penalties against those who attempt to commandeer them. The Patriot Act in 2001 created a provision banning the transfer of a select agent like Ebola, and the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 gave more authority to the HHS to regulate those agents and diseases.

In September, the Obama administration issued new regulations for federally funded labs that work with contagious diseases like Ebola. Some researchers have criticized the guidelines as not being strong enough over fears that the pathogens, which are often made stronger in a lab, could potentially be used as bioweapons.

Kraemer says two scenarios could likely play out if Ebola samples fell into the wrong hands. If a researcher acquired Ebola for misguided research, for example, then they would likely get fined by HHS and could be sentenced to five years in prison.

“If however someone broke into a hospital to steal Ebola for some other reason, it’d be at least 10 years,” Kraemer says. “If someone acquires Ebola with an intent to weaponize it, then they can get life in prison. And, of course, if you actually use Ebola as a weapon, you can be prosecuted under federal anti-terrorism laws, with penalties up to the death penalty.”

Given the security required at labs authorized to handle potential biological weapons, as well as the risk that someone stealing a pathogen may also become infected by it, those latter scenarios are highly unlikely.

“Stealing an Ebola sample would be extremely dangerous because the thief would face a significant risk of exposure,” says Robert Field, a professor of law at Drexel University. “Other pathogens would be safer to steal because protection is easier.”

Like, for instance, anthrax.

TIME Crime

Hero or Villain? Why Thousands Mourned a Bank Robber

Pretty Boy Floyd
From the Oct. 22, 1934, issue of TIME TIME

Oct. 22, 1934: Bank robber “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a Robin Hood figure of the Depression era, is shot to death by FBI agents

He may have been one of America’s best-loved bank robbers: tens of thousands of people paid their respects at Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s funeral after he was shot down by G-men on this day, Oct. 22, in 1934.

The FBI agents, however, were not among the mourners. Earlier in the year, the agency had declared him Public Enemy No. 1 for his alleged role in the 1933 Kansas City Massacre, when machine-gunners mowed down three policemen and one FBI agent as they attempted to return an escaped federal prisoner to the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kans. Floyd was named as one of the shooters; he’d hoped, the FBI said, to free his incarcerated friend, who was killed in the crossfire. In a story published the day of his death, TIME called Floyd “a murderously cool shot, [whose] trigger finger has already accounted for at least six deaths.” Summarizing his criminal CV, the story went on:

At 18 he robbed a neighborhood post-office of $350 in pennies. A three-year apprenticeship in the St. Louis underworld landed him, in 1925, in Missouri Penitentiary for a payroll robbery. There he peddled drugs, struck down guards, and met “Red” Lovett, who teamed up with him on his release in 1929. For the next four years he robbed rural banks, taking on new partners as his old ones fell dead by the wayside.

The public remembered him differently: as an Oklahoma tenant farmer beaten down by financial hardship and forced into a life of crime — but always looking out for the little guy. Rumors circulated that he had destroyed mortgage notes when he robbed banks, freeing struggling farmers from foreclosure.

There may have been at least a kernel of truth to the legend, based on his reputation for generosity to the “hill people” who helped him hide from the law in the foothills of the Ozarks, according to Jeffery S. King’s book, The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd. King claims Floyd was paying to feed a dozen families who might have otherwise gone hungry.

He couldn’t hide in the hills forever, though. FBI agents got their shot at him in Ohio after Floyd crashed his getaway car into a telephone pole. They chased him down in a cornfield and fired on him while he ran. But his story didn’t end there; five years after Floyd’s death, Woody Guthrie memorialized him in song. “Pretty Boy Floyd” remembers the fugitive fondly, with the lyrics:

But many a starvin’ farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes…

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

Read about TIME’s 1934 account Floyd’s death, here in the archives: Floyd Flushed

TIME Crime

Missouri Governor Forms Ferguson Commission to Address Inequality

Missouri Gov. Nixon Announces Creation Of Independent Commission On Ferguson
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announces a plan to create a commission to address issues raised by recent events in Ferguson, Missouri on October 21, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

“If we want peace in our streets, we must work together to create a more just and equal society"

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon announced Tuesday the formation of a regional commission to address inequality in Ferguson, Mo., the site of ongoing protests after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed in August by a white police officer.

The “Ferguson Commission” will include leaders in business, public safety, education as well as “ordinary citizens” who will investigate issues of poverty, law enforcement and education in the St. Louis suburb and provide policy recommendations, Nixon said in a press conference.

“Legitimate issues have been raised by thoughtful voices on all sides,” Nixon said. “Shouting past one another will not move us to where we need to go.”

The commission, which is not tasked with examining Brown’s death, will be appointed by early November, Nixon’s spokesman Scott Holste told the Wall Street Journal. The governor expects the group to provide recommendations by early spring.

Nixon’s announcement follows months of protests, some violent, over the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson, whose case is currently under review by a grand jury. The commission’s announcement also comes on the heels of a Monday arrest of a Missouri state senator who was arrested in Ferguson after reportedly refusing to comply with police orders during a demonstration there.

“If we want peace in our streets, we must work together to create a more just and equal society,” Nixon said. “This is a defining moment that will determine whether this place will be known as a region marred by racial division and unrest, or a region that pulled together to rise above and heal.”

[Wall Street Journal]

TIME Media

What John Grisham Got Right About Child Pornography

2014 Bookexpo America - Day 3
Author John Grisham attends the 2014 Bookexpo America at The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on May 31, 2014 in New York City. Taylor Hill—Getty Images

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a syndicated columnist.

There is clearly something wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children

Last week John Grisham, the best-selling author of legal thrillers, triggered a storm of online criticism by arguing in an interview with The Telegraph that criminal penalties for possessing child pornography are unreasonably harsh. Grisham, who has since apologized, spoke rather loosely, overstating the extent to which honest mistakes account for child porn convictions and the extent to which those convictions expand the prison population.

But he was right on two important points: People who download child pornography are not necessarily child molesters, and whatever harm they cause by looking at forbidden pictures does not justify the penalties they often receive.

Under federal law, receiving child pornography, which could mean downloading a single image, triggers a mandatory minimum sentence of five years—the same as the penalty for distributing it. Merely looking at a picture can qualify someone for the same charge, assuming he does so deliberately and is aware that web browsers automatically make copies of visited sites. In practice, since the Internet nowadays is almost always the source of child pornography, this means that viewing and possession can be treated the same as trafficking.

The maximum penalty for receiving or distributing child porn is 20 years, and federal sentencing guidelines recommend stiff enhancements based on very common factors, such as using a computer, possessing more than 600 images (with each video clip counted as 75 images) and exchanging photos for something of value, including other photos. In a 2009 analysis, federal public defender Troy Stabenow showed that a defendant with no prior criminal record and no history of abusing children would qualify for a sentence of 15 to 20 years based on a small collection of child pornography and one photo swap, while a 50-year-old man who encountered a 13-year-old girl online and lured her into a sexual relationship would get no more than 4 years.

Nine out of 10 federal child-porn prosecutions involve “non-production offenses”: downloading or passing along images of sexual abuse, as opposed to perpetrating or recording it. As a result of congressional edicts, the average sentence in such cases rose from 54 months in 2004 to 95 months in 2010, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The penalties have become so severe, the commission noted, that judges frequently find ways to dodge them, resulting in wildly inconsistent sentences for people guilty of essentially the same conduct. In a 2010 survey, 71% of federal judges said mandatory minimums for receiving child pornography are too long.

State sentences can be even harsher. Dissenting from a 2006 decision in which the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a 200-year sentence for a former high school teacher caught with child pornography, Vice Chief Justice Rebecca Berch noted that the penalties for such offenses were more severe than the penalties for rape, second-degree murder, and sexual assault of a child younger than 12.

These draconian sentences seem to be driven largely by the assumption that people who look at child pornography are all undiscovered or would-be child molesters. But that is not true.

The sentencing commission found, based on criminal records and additional information in presentencing reports, that one in three federal defendants convicted of non-production offenses in the previous decade had known histories of “criminal sexually dangerous behavior” (including prior child pornography offenses). Tracking 610 defendants sentenced in fiscal years 1999 and 2000 for 8.5 years after they were released, the USSC found that 7% were arrested for a new sexual offense.

Even allowing for the fact that many cases of sexual abuse go unreported (as indicated by victim surveys), it seems clear that some consumers of child pornography never abuse children. “There does exist a distinct group of offenders who are Internet-only and do not present a significant risk for hands-on sex offending,” says Karl Hanson, a senior research officer at Public Safety Canada who has co-authored several recidivism studies.

Another argument for sending people who look at child pornography to prison, emphasized by the Supreme Court in its 1990 decision upholding criminal penalties for mere possession, is that consumers create a demand that encourages production. Yet any given consumer’s contribution to that demand is likely insignificant, and this argument carries much less weight now that people typically obtain child pornography online for free.

Defenders of harsh penalties for looking at child pornography also argue that viewing such images imposes extra suffering on victims of sexual abuse, who must live with the knowledge that strangers around the world can see evidence of the horrifying crimes committed against them. But again, any single defendant’s contribution to that suffering is apt to be very small.

Tellingly, people who possess “sexually obscene images of children,” such as “a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting”—production of which need not entail abuse of any actual children—face the same heavy penalties under federal law as people caught with actual child pornography. That provision, like the reaction to John Grisham’s comments, suggests these policies are driven by outrage and disgust rather than reason. There is clearly something wrong with a justice system in which people who look at images of child rape can be punished more severely than people who rape children.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a syndicated columnist.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Race

State Senator Arrested in Ferguson Protest

Video shows her leading protest chants

A Missouri state senator was arrested during a protest in Ferguson Monday night following the continued outrage over a white officer’s shooting of an unarmed black teen in August.

State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who represents sections of St. Louis, can be seen leading a protest chant in footage aired on local news channel KSDK, Reuters reports. “No Justice,” she yells in the video. The crowd replies, “No peace.”

On Aug. 9, police officer Darren Wilson shot multiple times and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The town has been on edge with near-daily protests since news first broke, but tensions have run especially high in recent days as a grand jury weighs whether to indict Wilson.

[Reuters]

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