WASHINGTON – A majority of Supreme Court justices appeared to be sympathetic toward victims of abuse in a case Wednesday concerning reparations for child pornography victims.
The case, Paroline v. United States, involves a woman referred to only as “Amy,” who was sexually abused by her uncle, Eugene Zebroski, when she was about eight years old. Zebroski posted explicit images of Amy showing rape and other sexual crimes online. He was prosecuted in 1998 in Pennsylvania, sentenced to prison and ordered to pay just over $6,300 in damages to his niece, according to legal documents.
The images have now been viewed an estimated 70,000 times, according to Amy’s lawyer, Paul Cassell. In 2009, Doyle Randall Paroline of Tyler, Texas, pled guilty to possessing approximately 300 child pornography images, two of which were of Amy. Paroline’s only connection to Amy and Zebroski was that he had downloaded the pornographic pictures. Because Paroline possessed Amy’s pictures, her lawyer filed for nearly $3.4 million in restitution, citing Amy’s legal fees, therapy bills and lost income overtime.
According to a 1994 federal law, offenders convicted of child pornography crimes can be required to pay damages to their victims. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called this law “a clear order from Congress” to impose damages on those convicted of child pornography crimes.
Lower courts are divided on whether these reparations for victims should be automatic, or if there needs to a conclusive link between the crime and the harm inflicted upon the victim.
Stanley Schneider, who represented Paroline, argued that his client’s actions – as a possessor of pornography — caused Amy little to no direct harm. Therefore, Paroline should not be responsible for the full cost of Amy’s reparations, he said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, disagreeing with Schneider’s premise, said that all new viewers of Amy’s photos cause her additional emotional harm.
“This young woman has been subjected to psychological harm because of thousands of people viewing her rape,” Scalia said. “In other words, each person increases the amount of her harm.”
Cassell, representing Amy, insisted that Paroline should be responsible for the full cost of Amy’s damages on the grounds that his possession of child pornography harmed her. Cassell said this is the fastest way for Amy to receive the money she needs to pay her expenses.
Scalia questioned the fairness of this position. “He’s guilty of the crime, but [is it necessary] to sock him for all the psychiatric costs because he had two pictures of her?” he asked.
The Department of Justice presented a third option for determining who pays the reparations. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben said the costs should be shared among all those who are convicted of crimes relating to Amy’s pictures.
Chief Justice John Roberts said such an alternative would allow for assessment of the full reparations amount if a situation merited it. He suggested an expert witness could testify about how much of a victim’s reparations each offender should be required to cover.
Other justices questioned the feasibility of that idea because it could be difficult to determine the total number of people who have viewed the pornographic images. When images are available online, offenders will likely continue to access them in the future as well.
“It’s impossible to tell how many people have seen it and how many people will see it,” Justice Samuel Alito said.
Amy has already collected reparations from other cases. According to her lawyer, she had received more than $1.7 million as of yesterday.