September 11, 2008

Prosecuting Internet-based sex crimes

Can expert witnesses play a role?

The following facts come from a court case much like several that I have been involved in:

Dennis Joseph is a 40-year-old married man with a 6-year-old daughter. He spends a lot of time on the Internet. Indeed, one might say he is addicted. Once upon a time, he entered the online chat room "I Love Older Men," and began chatting with "Teen2Hot4U."

"Teen2Hot4U" identified herself as "Lorie," a 13-year-old girl. Lori eventually introduced him to her friend Julie, also 13. Eventually, after lots of back-and-forth chatting, Joseph and Julie arranged to meet.

Joseph later said he was not planning to have sex with an underage girl, he just wanted to see if Julie was a real teen or an adult woman engaged in role-playing.

He got his answer when he showed up at the Franklin Street Station Cafe in Manhattan for the meeting. Instead of a teenage girl, the real Julie was a grown man by the name of Austin Berglas who happened to be an FBI agent and who promptly arrested him. "Teen2Hot4U,"meanwhile, turned out to be a 55-year-old crusader named Stephanie Good who made her reputation surfing the Internet looking for sexual predators to report to Berglas; she even wrote a book on her exploits, grandiosely titled "Exposed: The Harrowing Story of a Mother's Undercover Work with the FBI to Save Children from Internet Sex Predators."

At his federal district court trial in New York, Joseph said he had thought all along that Lorie and Julie were probably adults, based on their sexual knowledge, but he played along as part of his practice of online fantasy role-playing.

His wife backed him up. She testified that Joseph liked muscular woman and was addicted to sexual fantasy role-playing. He even belonged to an Internet group called "Muscleteens," she testified, that solicits pictures of young female bodybuilders.

In his defense, Joseph had also planned to call an expert witness, Dr. James Herriot. Not the James Herriot of veterinary fame, but a professor at the Institute of Advanced Human Sexuality in San Francisco who has researched sexual communication on the Internet. Dr. Herriot would have testified about the fantasy role-playing that takes place in Internet chat rooms.

The trial judge barred Herriot's expert testimony. Joseph was convicted and sentenced to eight years in federal prison. This week, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. Although the reversal was on unrelated grounds, the appellate opinion includes a lengthy plea for the judge to reconsider that exclusionary ruling.
"Although the admission or exclusion of expert testimony is [at] the discretion of the court, we urge the District Court to give a more thorough consideration to the defendant's claim to present Dr. Herriot's testimony…. Dr. Herriot's field of study and experience qualified him to offer relevant testimony…. Dr. Herriot's opinions appear to be highly likely to assist the jury to 'understand the evidence.' … Although some jurors may have familiarity with Internet messaging, it is unlikely that the average juror is familiar with the role-playing activity that Dr. Herriot was prepared to explain in the specific context of sexually oriented conversation in cyberspace…. Obviously a jury would not have to accept Joseph's claim that he planned only to meet 'Julie' to learn who she was and that he lacked any intention to engage in sexual conduct with her, but the frequent occurrence of such 'de-masking' of chat-room participants might provide support for the defense."
In a case similar to Joseph's, Dr. Herriot was allowed to testify and the defendant was acquitted, the appellate ruling noted. (That case is U.S. v. Wragg, 01 Cr. 6107.)

The ruling, United States v. Joseph, 2008 WL 4137900 (2nd Cir. 2008), is online here.

Hat tip: Colin Miller (EvidenceProf Blog). Photo credit: Kim Dench ("Temple Dancer"), Creative Commons License.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I was also surprised about the lack of mainstream media comment. Particularly as reporters were also targeted. To be honest I expected in in the US but I live in New Zealand. (I am not a New Zealander so this is not anti-US sentiment, just experience).

I am glad you had the courage, and knowledge to make this more widely known.

You can get some more detail at

they have video, and/or audio as well as text and it is totally free if you wait to view/download until the next day

By the way, I really like your blog.

Jim Hegarty PhD PgDipClinPsych FNZC