The Minnesota case has been at the center of the debate over how to apportion blame in child porn cases.
Across the United States, some purveyors of child pornography have been ordered to pay millions in restitution to their victims. Others, not a dime.
On Monday in federal court in St. Paul, Brandon Anthony Buchanan -- penniless, without assets and serving more than seven years in prison -- agreed to pay $1,000 restitution for possessing images of a victim identified as "Amy." The amount was agreed to by prosecutors, the defense attorney, the judge and Amy's lawyer.
It is the principle -- not the amount -- that was important in Buchanan's case, said James Marsh, Amy's attorney. Buchanan's case, one of more than 400 in which Marsh has asked for restitution around the country, is a sign that more courts accept the idea that possessing even a single child porn photo does measurable harm to victims.
"We applaud the judge for what he's done," Marsh said Monday.
The issue of restitution for child porn victims -- and deciding who pays and how much -- came to the forefront in Minnesota three months ago when U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz demanded to know why restitution wasn't being sought in Buchanan's case.
Buchanan had pleaded guilty in May 2009 to possessing child pornography, including images of Amy, considered one of the most widely circulated sets of child porn in the country. As he does whenever Amy's pictures are recovered, Marsh submitted a letter in Buchanan's case requesting $3.4 million in restitution.
Marsh said he has won restitution settlements ranging from $5,000 to $150,000 in about a third of the cases. A few courts have ordered millions. Some have ordered nothing.
He and other experts admit that the issue of apportioning blame to those who possess child pornography, not just to those who produce it or distribute it, is a thorny one.
Defense attorneys have argued that ordering restitution from everyone who possesses child pornography is better left to civil courts, rather than the criminal system. Others say that while the possessor of child porn almost certainly causes harm to its victims, determining the weight of that harm -- among potentially millions of offenders -- is nearly impossible.
Equally liable for harm
Some, such as Marsh and Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, argue that all offenders are jointly and equally liable for that harm. Thus, they say, all are liable for restitution.
Schiltz dived into the center of the debate when he issued an order Jan. 4 asking why restitution was not being sought in Buchanan's case. Schiltz said that Congress has clearly intended that restitution be considered for all crime victims -- including child porn victims. Yet, in Buchanan's case, the U.S. attorney's office and Buchanan's defense attorney agreed that no restitution would be paid.
The prosecutor replied that Amy was, indeed, entitled to restitution. On Monday, all sides agreed that $1,000 was appropriate. Officials with the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment further.
Marsh said that $1,000 -- to be paid to the U.S. Clerk of Court -- is the minimum amount he has agreed to in cases where the offender is destitute.
"In a world of unlimited possible defendants with limited resources, defendants like Buchanan just aren't of interest to us," he said.
James Walsh • 612-673-7428