March 5, 2012

Internet stings: Does the fantasy defense hold water?

Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector, was among the most vocal in insisting that the Bush administration fabricated its claims of “weapons of mass destruction” in order to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Ritter didn’t receive much public gratitude for his efforts to avert a costly and destructive war. Instead, he lost his career and his life gradually unraveled. Sinking deeper into depression, he fled into chat rooms, where he arranged rendezvous with adult women willing to watch him masturbate. At first, the meetings took place in cars or out-of-the-way places. Later, he switched to using a webcam, according to a profile by Matt Bai in the New York Times Magazine.

Then came that fateful day in February 2009 on which, in a Yahoo chat room for adults, he conversed with “Emily.” Although she told him she was 15, Emily was actually a small-town police officer, trolling for sexual predators online.

After doing his usual thing of masturbating in front of the webcam, Ritter announced he was signing off to take a shower.

Not so fast, retorted the officer:

"U know ur in a lot of trouble, don’t you? I’m a undercover police officer. U need to call me ASAP."

"Nah," Ritter typed back. "Your not 15. Yahoo is for 18 and over. It’s all fantasy. No crime."

"I have your phone number and I will be getting your IP address from Yahoo and your carrier," the officer responded. "We can do this 2 ways call me and you can turn yourself in at a latter date or I’ll get a warrant for you and come pick you up."

Ritter turned himself in. At his trial, he testified that he never for a moment believed he was talking to a minor; he assumed he was chatting with a bored housewife pretending to be 15.

Unfortunately for Ritter, jurors were told of his two prior arrests in similar cases, for which he was never prosecuted. In both cases, undercover police had lured him into meetings with fictional teenage girls. His claim that he knew that he was actually talking to undercover police in both cases likely strained the credulity of jurors, who convicted him in the case of “Emily.”

After hearing testimony from a government evaluator who called Ritter a sexually violent predator, the judge sentenced him late last year to a prison term of 18 months to five and a half years.

Fantasy defense succeeds in Queensland

Had it not been for his two earlier cases, Ritter’s defense might not have been all that far-fetched. After all, it worked for Darryl Plumridge of Queensland, Australia back in 2007.

Just like Ritter, Plumridge engaged in online chat with an undercover police officer posing as a teenage girl, in this case a 13-year-old with the screen name of “Erin Princess Baby.”

His defense was simple, according to a forthcoming article in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law: “He claimed that he knew the person with whom he was communicating was an older male and he was simply role playing.”

At trial, he testified that the covert police operative inadvertently supplied various content cues as to his true age and gender. For example, he signed off by saying "see ya later alligator," something no self-respecting 21st-century girl would say. Even more tellingly, he accidentally said he ("she") was at the office when "she" was supposed to be home from school, a glaring error that "she" immediately corrected.

Plumridge was acquitted. 

Study: Can people see through online deception?

Criminologist Robyn Lincoln of Bond University and forensic psychologist Ian R. Coyle, a Gold Coast practitioner and associate professor of law who testified in the case, decided to conduct a study to test the plausibility of Plumridge’s defense. Given the flat nature of internet communication, lacking in physical or tonal cues, can people actually deduce the true age and gender of someone who is pretending to be someone else?

Bottom line? Yes, they often can.

Lincoln and Coyle randomly assigned 46 students as either "deceivers" or "receivers." Each volunteer participant was met off-site and individually led to one of several private study locations, to preclude chance encounters with other participants. Deceivers were instructed to play the role of a 13-year-old girl. Receivers, in contrast, were misled to believe that they might be talking with individuals ranging in age from young children to the elderly. The pairs then chatted with each other for 30 minutes.

Despite the deceivers' best efforts, the majority of receivers were able to correctly identify the age and gender of the person with whom they were chatting, within a five-year bandwidth. None of the receivers believed they were talking to someone under the age of 16.

Thus, the claims of Plumridge and Ritter, that they knew they were chatting with adults but ignored that reality for purposes of fantasy role-playing, appear to have some scientific basis.

As law enforcement officers increasingly partake in trolling the internet for sexual predators in their spare time, it is probably only a matter of time before the Bond University study is introduced into court as evidence.

The study, "No one Knows you’re a Dog on the Internet: Implications for Proactive Police Investigation of Sexual Offenders," has been accepted for publication in Psychiatry, Psychology and Law. Correspondence may be directed to the first author, Robyn Lincoln.