This case concerns questions (a) of responsibility for crime and (b) whether or not the Internet facilitates certain crimes.
The actual court case is quite complicated (it involves two district and one appellate court cases), and has to do with something called the “federal sentencing guidelines.” These guidelines are intended to establish uniformity in the kinds of sentences handed down for various federal crimes. Under the guidelines, a court can look at the nature of the offense, and then arrive at an appropriate sentence, taking into account things like the defendant’s prior criminal record. The guidelines attempt to make a judgment about criminal responsiblility based (to some extent) on the circumstances under which the crime was committed. Somtimes, a criminal may be eligible for a “downward departure,” a reduced sentence. This is not the same thing as “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Rather, it is the judgment that even though what the person did was wrong, he or she should nevertheless be sentenced more leniently by the court.
In the present case, McBroom, the defendant, was sentenced for possession of child pornography that he obtained on the internet. Read the excerpts from the case, and then discuss the questions in your group.
* The case is United States v. McBroom, 991 F. Supp. 445 (1998). Headers are my own addition; I have deleted the court’s citations and the court’s judgment; the material in square brackets  is my own and summarizes some legal discussion…
The Court’s Opinion – McBroom’s History
McBroom has presented evidence of his diminished capacity and his rehabilitation efforts through his own affidavit and letters from treating professionals. McBroom’s uncontroverted affidavit recounts a traumatic life history, starting with years of childhood sexual abuse by his father, and eventually degenerating into alcohol and cocaine addiction and an obsession with pornography. McBroom kept the sexual abuse secret until he finally confessed it to a therapist in approximately 1984. Although McBroom managed to obtain a law degree and work as a lawyer, he continually abused alcohol and cocaine. McBroom also frequented “peep shows,” called “900” sex lines, and viewed pornographic pictures. Due to his addictions, his marriage ended in divorce after seven years. He went through at least four stays in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. The final stay ended in late 1993; McBroom has not had a drink or taken drugs since then.
Although McBroom managed to stop drinking and taking drugs, he soon discovered the vast array of pornography, including child pornography, available on the Internet. He states that his “attraction to pornography on the computer was borne of sheer amazement at the volume of available material. … The amazement turned to fascination, and ultimately to obsession.” McBroom kept his obsession secret from his girlfriend, but continued to view the pornography even after he knew that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating him: “It would have been so easy (and wise) for me to simply delete all of this material from my computer’s hard drive once I learned that the FBI had been to my building, but I couldn’t do it. I had to keep looking at it, knowing what was coming.”
McBroom was treated by a therapist, Edward R. Crowley, who specializes in the treatment of male survivors of sexual abuse, for several years. He is now in weekly therapy with Richard B. Gartner, Ph.D., Director of the Sexual Abuse Program at the William Alanson White Institute for Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology. Dr. Gartner stated in a report that McBroom has exhibited “a wide spectrum of obsessive and compulsive behaviors, including severe alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual compulsivity (particularly related to pornography) combined with sexual dysfunction, overeating, and extreme problems with managing money and debt.” Dr. Gartner concluded that McBroom’s compulsivity extended to viewing pornography and that this “compulsivity led to a significantly reduced mental state which contributed in a large degree to Mr. McBroom’s commission of the offense for which he has been convicted.”
McBroom has also been receiving regular medical treatment from a psychiatrist, Dr. Ronald M. Winchel, for cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder, and for an impulse control disorder. Dr. Winchel stated in a supplemental letter that “the core nature of Impulse Control Disorders is the inability to resist the urge to act in accord with the impulse. … An important point about Impulse Control Disorders [is that] the urge to act is overpowering and is not fueled by logic or pursuit of pleasure. (The only apparent ‘reward’ is the surcease of overwhelming anxiety and agitation which accompanies the completion of the impulsive act).”
McBroom also details his efforts to get his life under control since the commission of this offense. He has been sober since December 1993. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day, and organizes speaking engagements for several AA groups in his area. He frequently speaks about his own experiences at AA chapters throughout the state. As noted above, he receives regular psychological and psychiatric treatment, and according to his doctors, he has been compliant in taking medication for his obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. Dr. Winchel stated that in his view, “McBroom makes no attempt to minimize his behavior. … He has been consistent and unwavering in his desire to get his urges under control.”
Although McBroom voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law as a result of his guilty plea, McBroom has been employed full-time at a legal staffing firm in Fort Lee, New Jersey for the past 10 months. He also makes regular support payments to his ex-wife and visits regularly with his sons.
[McBroom has requested a reduced sentence (“downward departure”) owing to his “reduced mental state” brought on by his abuse and triggered by the sheer volume of pornography he discovered online. In the appellate court decision, the court ruled that two kinds of factors were relevant in determining whether or not his mental state was reduced. First, whether or not he knew what he was doing was wrong. Second, the “volitional component,” has to do with whether he was able to control himself, even though he knew it was wrong. Only the second factor is at issue here.]
The Court finds that McBroom’s case is the rare situation justifying a downward departure. He has asserted repeatedly that he was “obsessed” and compulsively viewed the Internet pornography, even though he knew he would soon be caught. He stated that he was thinking about viewing pornography all the time, even when he was not on-line. Even when he learned that the FBI was investigating him, he could not bring himself to simply delete the pornographic pictures from his computer.
His therapists have also found that he exhibits obsessive and compulsive behaviors, and that his viewing of pornography on the computer is a manifestation of these compulsions. His psychiatrist, Dr. Winchel, stated in a report that McBroom suffered from an impulse control disorder, and that “the factor that is common to the various Impulse Disorders, is the overwhelming quality of the urge to commit the action toward which the individual feels driven.” He further stated that “the apparently illogic of [McBroom’s] keeping incriminating evidence illustrates the behavior of an individual caught in the vise of compulsion.”
Dr. Winchel concluded that “if the phrase ‘significantly reduced mental state’ is intended to include a reduced capacity for choice, and acting under the influence of compulsion, resultant from a psychiatric disorder, then Mr. McBroom’s condition, in my view, amply fulfills that condition.” McBroom testified at the sentencing hearing about his constant feelings of agitation when he was awaiting his next opportunity to view pornography. He testified that he would create excuses to convince his girlfriend to leave their apartment so that he could view pornography. The Court finds McBroom’s testimony at the sentencing hearing to be credible. Nothing he said on the stand undermined the opinions of his experts that he suffered from an impulse control disorder.
- Is the legal distinction between “doing something you knew was wrong” and “doing something you knew was wrong but were unable to stop doing” ethically defensible? Why or why not?
- Should McBroom’s history of childhood abuse reduce his legal responsibility for possessing child pornography? Does it alter his ethical responsibility? Why or why not?
- The Court reasoned that possession of child pornography was a nonviolent crime. Do you agree? Why or why not?
- The Court believed that the easy availability of pornography on the net was a major factor in McBroom’s being unable to control himself. Is this line of reasoning correct?
- Do you think that exposure to sex and violence on the Net and their easy availability are likely to cause people become obsessed with them? If so, what forms might this obsession take?
- With whom does responsibility for dealing with this lie? Or is it a problem?
- Are issues like these reasons to pass laws to suppress pornography online? How much risk to society do you think there needs to be, before the government makes a major effort to crack down on online porn?
- If such an effort is warranted, what should it be?