Thursday, May 03, 2007

21st Century witch hunts and the crisis of common sense

Via Bryan Appleyard I discovered of a court case in Norwich, Connecticut where a 40 year old public school substitute teacher was convicted of four felony counts of injury to a child due to a classroom computer which inadvertently displayed pornographic pop-up ads.

Julie Amero, a substitute teacher at a middle school in Norwich, Conn., said she had simply wanted to e-mail her husband. The authorities contend that she was — purposely or, perhaps, carelessly — exposing 11- and 12-year-old students to pornography rather than teaching them English.

Last month, Ms. Amero was convicted in Norwich Superior Court of four counts of risking injury to a child and faces up to 40 years in prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for March 2. She has insisted on her innocence, refusing to accept a plea bargain that would have allowed her to walk free. She portrays herself as a hapless technophobe too clueless to unplug a wayward computer.

Ms. Amero, 40, a longtime substitute, contends that when she arrived that day in October 2004, she asked the regular seventh-grade language arts teacher at Kelly Middle School if she could use his computer to e-mail her husband. But first, she says, she went to the bathroom, and when she returned, the teacher was gone and students were gathered around the screen, watching a hairstyle Web site.

When she tried to close the site, what she got was an endless barrage of pop-up ads for pornography sites. The images continued all day, since “I absolutely have no clue about computers,” she said in an interview.

That any American prosecutor with a lick of common sense would ever bring such charges is beyond belief. That a jury of twelve adults would find her guilty and subject to a potential 40 year prison sentence goes even further beyond belief. Sentencing for Ms. Amero has been postponed twice since her conviction, and is now slated for May 18th.

This is one of those cases that are so absurd that words fail me. How do so many people lose so much perspective between the level of injury done, if any, and the severity of punishment applied? Would any teacher in their right mind take a job in the Norwich school system after such a travesty? Never underestimate the irrational paranoia of the modern suburban parent. The Salem Puritans look sane by comparison.

24 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I dunno about that last bit.

I just finished Curtiss' 'The Smart Set,' which is about Nathan and Mencken and their duels with the Boston Watch and Ward Society, among others. People were imprisoned (though not for as long as 40 years in America) for less back in the dear, thankfully dead days of decency and sturdy American individualism.

May 03, 2007 3:10 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

This antiquated court system.

An example of why I am for Jury Nullification as the best way for thinking citizens to have given this woman justice..even after the prosecutor filed on whatever technicalities of legalese (after obtaining the archaic Grand Jury Indictment)





_________________
Everyone remember the McMartin Preschool travesty?

May 03, 2007 6:24 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, surely you know by now that every newspaper report of a criminal matter will say that the accused faces "up to..." whatever the maximum penalty is, even if the prosecution isn't even dreaming of asking for such a sentence. Can you not think of circumstances where causing injury to a child would merit such a sentence?

Her story stinks to high heaven. In the unlikely event it is actually true, she should still never be allowed within a mile of a classroom.

May 04, 2007 5:11 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
Should she be fired? Sure, and she was. At maximum she should be charged with some misdemeanor that fits the circumstances. But felony injury to a child? Get a grip!

I don't know how the statute is worded, but I would think the first thing the prosecution would be required to do is to prove that injuries were sustained by the children. Were any of these children taken to psychiatrists for treatment? I doubt it. Do you really think that a onetime exposure to pornographic popup ads can cause psychological damage to a seventh grade child? If that is the case, then any parent who allows their children to surf the internet unsupervised without securing their computer against any kind of obscene content is a felon. It's absurd.

May 04, 2007 5:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Should she be fired? Sure

So you are enraged she may get a fine and a record, but you think taking her livelihood away is a no-brainer? Why, if it is all so silly and harmless? And she says she is completely innocent, which is why she refused the plea bargain that presumably would have given her what you say she merits.

the prosecution would be required to do is to prove that injuries were sustained by the children.

So, the materialist reductionist defence of porn now applies to eleven year olds? If I am ever charged with shooting up in front of a grade 7 class, I'll want you as my lawyer.

If that is the case, then any parent who allows their children to surf the internet unsupervised without securing their computer against any kind of obscene content is a felon.

Isn't it funny how we've never heard of parents who have had this happen, no matter how technologically incompetent. Some people have all the bad luck.

Get a grip!

I have one and it appears considerably tighter than yours. Duck, review the account of the evidence again and THINK!!

May 04, 2007 6:44 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, you don't see a difference between getting fired by a school and having a felony conviction on your record? Reflect on this one word: proportionality. I advise you to think on that awhile.

So if we don't hold prosecutors to a material definition of injury when they apply felony statutes to would be offenders, who is to say that they can't charge a man who uses bad language in front of teenagers with felony injury to a child? If injury can't be demonstrated materially or by some respectable psychological diagnosis, then the prosecutor has a blank check to charge anyone with felony injury to a child based on any subjective criteria that any hysterical paranoid parent can dream up.

It's not a defense of porn to say that an inadvertent exposure of an 11 year old to momentary pornographic images on a computer screen does no injury worthy of a felony prosecution.

May 04, 2007 7:05 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: As Peter says, you can never believe an article that presents only one side to a court case. After all, the very fact that there is a case means that people on both sides have concluded that there is an issue to dispute. I'm not saying that both sides are always right, but you should at least figure out what the other side says.

This article from a local paper gives some sense of what the prosecutor believes.

The defense focuses on the question of whether it is necessarily true beyond a reasonable doubt that she surfed to porn sites. The prosecution focuses on the fact that her computer was showing porn all day and she did nothing (like reboot or turn off the monitor) to stop the kids in the class from seeing the porn. At times during the day, she left the room open and the door unlocked while the computer was unattended.

The Connecticut statute appears to make it a crime to risk injury to a minor or to impair the morals of a minor. You might disagree with the wisdom of those statutes, but that is Connecticut law.

Personally, I still don't know enough to have a solid opinion, but I am sympathetic to the argument that she shouldn't have been charged. That's probably because I do think we've gone berserk on the issue of children and sex, mostly as a result of the breakdown of cultural mores on sex. (Who was it who wrote the great blog bon mot "You can have a strong culture and a weak state or a weak culture and a strong state, and those are the only two choices"?)

I would even have voted to acquit, if there was evidence that she was a computer novice and was told not to turn off the computer because I've run into all too many novices who don't realize that there is a distinction between turning off the monitor and turning off the computer.

Alexandra: It strikes me as being a little bizarre to, on the one hand, champion jury nullification and, on the other hand, oppose "the archaic Grand Jury Indictment." I understand that a Grand Jury would indict a ham sandwich, but in its absence wouldn't charges just be brought by the state without it having to run even a weak gauntlet?

May 04, 2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David,
I understand that there are two sides, but even allowing for the fact that everything the prosecution said about her is true, it doesn't come close to a felony level offense.

May 04, 2007 8:01 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

I should add that we don't have the felony/misdemeanor distinction up here. We have something like it, (indictable/summary conviction offence) but the lingo hasn't made its way into the popular culture and doesn't carry all the bogeyman connotations. Also, no barbarities like three strike laws.

Duck, she was offered a deal, but decided to stick with a highly implausible story. Presumably she was advised of the consequences. I don't think the average modern jury is any more freaked by inadvertant exposure to porn than you are. I agree with David that we are generally too paranoid about this kind of thing, but a little zero tolerance for adults in authority is a good idea. If I thought she intended it, I might have voted to convict because of the fact that it went on for hours and she appears to be lying about her computer skills. Prison is absurd, but she is the one responsible for declining the offer and you can't just ignore or pooh-pooh the plea bargaining process. Unlike blogging, the criminal law is for keeps.

What message do you think would be sent by everybody just having a good snicker and refusing to do anything? And what chance would they have of firing her or disciplining her if "no harm done" was the universal reaction? She'd sue everybody for her job and millions in punitives and just might win.

May 04, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

You got that last part right. Maybe not millions, but a lot.

Though my source is a labor law firm that defends employers, I'd go so far as to say that the school would lose even if it could prove harm, as long as the harm did not result in any lengthy hospital stays. Read and employment arbitration decisions lately?

++++

'So, the materialist reductionist defence of [religion] now applies to eleven year olds'

Depends on your definition of harm, I guess.

++++

What do any of you think about laws that create special penalties for, eg, selling drugs within 500 feet of a school or public playground?

How about one that prevents naked women from dancing at night on weekdays inside a building if it is within 1,000 feet of a church? (Truth in advertising: I was behind the successful impostion of such a law.)

May 04, 2007 8:41 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

As an aside, I'm frequently struck by how quickly so many people will get into a frothing rage over the injustice of a criminal conviction they don't agree with, even a minor one, but be completely sanguine about taking away someone's job or profession. She is young, to be sure, but it's one heck of a blow for most people. I think I'd elect to spend quite a bit of time in jail rather than lose my license. A safe jail, that is.

May 04, 2007 9:33 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, you're just pushing my buttons now, right? A felony conviction would ensure that she not only would never work in education again anywhere, but would probably have a hard time finding any kind of work for a long time. Getting fired from school isn't anywhere near as damaging to one's future employment prospects as that. A felony is not a minor offense. It's the big time of criminal convictions. That's why the term "felon" is so derogatory. She's up there with dope dealers.

May 04, 2007 9:42 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck, I'll happily give you my proxy on the felony question. It sure sounds like overkill to me. But if she intended all this, it isn't a minor matter. What would you say about a priest who did that with gay porn in a residential school? I assume you would be very concerned that it was just the first step to something else. But here you seem to be just assuming it is a one-off lark.

May 04, 2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

"Antiquated court system"? You betcha. To any thinking person,nothing much has changed.
It's the same old model. And, controlled by the attorney business monopoly.

Sorry, but labor case examples don't cut it on this post.

1) Grand Jury? Give me a break.
Can indict a ham sandwich.

2) For a middle class person, the costs of defending yourself against the power and money of the prosecutor's office is a huge financial...and emotional burden.
Can lose your house and more.

3) I brought up the McMartin Preschool case in CA as a prime example.

4) There was another big case in CA. A preschool worker wrongfully verbally charged by some kids.
Once these so-called professionals
start asking questions etc. re little kids' minds and dreams and so on...

Parents have a vested interest
because they then get damages from deep pocket school district.

5) Last year, a good male teacher
was accused by below average elementary student girls of molesting (touching) ...right in class ... rest of the small class there too.
No proof. Excellent family man. No other habits which would indicate.
He refused a Plea Agreement...because he said he didn't do it.
I was not alone in writing a Memorandum for him.
He has three or four great kids. They will be grown when he gets out. Left without their father every week and birthdays etc. There is still a web site
to free him.
Yuppy prosecutor threw the book at him.
Jury, even in deciding case had no idea how long he would be in prison as mandatory. He's in for 20yrs. to life.
The guy is a good guy.
The system went after him. It cost his family several hundred thousand dollars.

And, he's really left without an Appeal to get out unless some new evidence.
Oh, yeah, and the extra legal costs are thousands too.

6) Theories mean zero to me.
In fact, much of the legal system reminds me of the establishment religions to (Catholic, Jewish religion) British crown system.

7) Me? I'd have given him a year just in case he did it.
If he was guilty, he'd be in trouble again, then...
Enough for now.

May 04, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

Because of my Memorandum and other
citizens also writing in about the case, the judge gave him the lowest sentence he could.

May 04, 2007 10:13 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Regarding the felony/misdemeanor divide. I thought one definition of felony (common law?) was any offense with a penalty longer than one year in prison.

Even Alferd Packer didn't get 40 years.

May 04, 2007 1:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

Alexandra: That's just gibberish.

Harry: That's still a decent rule of thumb, if not hard and fast.

May 04, 2007 2:27 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

"that's just gibberish"

David, you can go take a flying leap of a long pier if you think you're going to make remarks to me like that...or ever again.
last time I even heard those words was by some
old senior who I had to be polite to as raised to be so


For anyone else, reading my prior comments regarding the antiquated legal system, I didn't
even get to what would be a book about the so-called Civil Law side of the attorney monopoly business & British lord court system.

May 05, 2007 11:31 AM  
Blogger David said...

Alexandra: I'm not saying it's gibberish because I disagree with it. I'm saying that it's gibberish because it's not English.

May 05, 2007 8:23 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Isn't it funny how we've never heard of parents who have had this happen, no matter how technologically incompetent.

It's your contention that you've never heard of anybody that has been inadvertently exposed to spam porn on the internet ?

If so, then you've been sheltered.

For instance, there's a notoriously-difficult-to-eradicate Russian virus that re-directs every fifth URL request to a Russian porn site.

May 06, 2007 1:56 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Oro, I can't believe the hoops you and Duck are going through here to defend this damsel in distress. Read the evidence again. This was far from the case of stumbling on a site inadvertantly and then quickly exiting.

It wasn't inadvertant, and I don't mean that in the sense that I personally know anything. She has had her trial before her peers and they made a decision. It's not a perfect system, but it's the best we have. They found she was lying and intended it. Except in rare cases of what is called a perverse verdict, (which means there was no evidence to substantiate the finding, not that the law was stupid) it is too late to be debating this story and her sentence on the basis that we should take account of the fact she may have been an innocent victim of circumstance.

And, no, I do not believe occasional, inadvertant exposure to porn is particularly harmful to children, but I do think it is very important whether the kids, especially boys, have a sense of whether it is illicit or the indoor sport of choice for emotionally healthy adults. But I realize that is the perspective of a man and a father. My observation is that many, perhaps the best, mothers sense more direct dangers, and I do try to remember they may know things about their children I don't.

May 06, 2007 2:55 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

I'm defending nobody. I have no opinion about the case, except to mentally note that you and David are likely correct, that there is more here than reported in the one article.

I take exception only to the one sentence that I highlighted.

As far as "exiting", part of my point is that it's not as simple as it would seem, from some sites.

May 06, 2007 8:13 AM  
Blogger tefta said...

Why didn't she just pull the plug?

May 06, 2007 5:23 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

tefta, I think that's why she was convicted, because that ought to have occurred to any rational person.

May 07, 2007 12:54 AM  

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