Porn charges can ruin innocent lives

`Once you're charged, it's over'
London suicide triggers memories


Jun. 10, 2004

A 32-year-old London doctor's suicide last weekend after he was charged with possessing child pornography has sent shockwaves through that city and raised questions about the way police and media handle the arrests of people accused of lurid crimes.


When he heard about it, the events of April 15, 2003, came flooding back to Toronto resident James LeCraw. That was the day the 51-year-old man was charged with possessing child pornography. The charges were withdrawn last September.


He was asleep in his west-end Toronto condo when five police officers banged on his door.


"There was something about `You've been charged with child pornography.' It was all pretty embarrassing and humiliating," LeCraw recalled.


The day before, he'd been "on top of the world" after learning he was in line for a big promotion at the non-profit agency he had successfully turned around. "I was thinking, no matter how this goes, I'm screwed now; once you're charged it's over."


The next day, Chief Julian Fantino and Staff Inspector Bruce Smollet, head of the Toronto Police Service sex crimes unit, held a news conference. Each year, Toronto police arrest some 50,000 people, but only a small fraction are singled out in news releases and conferences.


Those cases are highlighted for many reasons, said Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash. Police have "an obligation to public accountability, public safety, for people to be aware of what law enforcement issues are, about what is happening."


Pugash said the public also wants to know what police are doing to deal with those issues.


News conferences can also encourage other victims to come forward, Pugash said.


At the briefing, police released the names and ages of six Toronto men, including LeCraw, arrested as part of Project Snowball. "They only have one thing in common," Fantino told reporters. "That is the criminal approach to their relationship with children." He demanded tougher prison terms and asked Ottawa for more money to combat the victimizing of children.


The story received prominent attention in the media. But five months later, the crown quietly withdrew the charges against LeCraw. Crown Attorney Mary Humphrey will say only that the decision was made for a variety of reasons. Pugash, speaking "purely hypothetically," said there are some situations where "the crown may decide not to proceed with a case ... that does not mean that the evidence wasn't there to charge."


In 2002-03, 303 charges of possessing child porn were laid in Canada, not including Manitoba, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. There was a 46.2 per cent conviction rate, with 140 guilty verdicts, two acquittals, 123 charges stayed or withdrawn, and 38 "other" dispositions.


LeCraw said he'd been on an adult porn Web site owned by a company that also runs child pornography sites. Police found his credit card number and used it to obtain a search warrant. He said they searched his computer and found four "pop-up" addresses of child porn sites and a barely visible, tiny image police alleged to be child porn.


Ray Wyre, a leading independent consultant on sex crimes in the United Kingdom, said in a recent interview there are a host of ways people can unwittingly bring illegal material into their computers. "The fact is that you're only three clicks away."


Wyre, who works both for police and for people accused of sex crimes "I'm not a hired gun for one side or the other" says "it can come in as a pop-up or a pop-under or possibly as a virus and there are some trojans (computer programs) that have been bringing this stuff in; or maybe somebody was on and they got an attached document and they haven't asked for it, and as soon as they saw it they deleted it."


He said the crackdown the same one that swept up LeCraw also netted rock legend Pete Townshend has created "problems ... throughout the world" because police were obtaining warrants based on credit card information without conducting more thorough investigations. Townshend, who said he had looked at an image for research, paid a small fine.


Even though he was not convicted, LeCraw feels he was punished. He lost his job, is still unemployed and has taken a second mortgage on his condo. "With this crime there is absolutely no assumption of innocence. I've lost lifelong friends that, to their discredit ... didn't even make a phone call to me, they just read it in the paper."


He has complained to the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services and says he can't afford to launch a lawsuit.


Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said it would be appropriate and "humane" if, when charges are withdrawn, there is acknowledgement of that by police and the media. The media have a "profound responsibility," he says, to "make sure we have an exceptionally high level of fairness to those who are accused in these cases, because they will be tried by the public long before, sometimes, they're tried in a courtroom."


Additional articles by Betsy Powell