Opinion Analysis: The unit of prosecution for child pornography is the material containing the pornography, even if it is duplicative, in United States v. Forrester, No. 17-0049/MC
CAAF decided the Marine Corps case of United States v. Forrester, __ M.J. __, No. 17-0049/MC (CAAFlog case page) (link to slip op.), on Wednesday, August 16, 2017. Considering four separate convictions for possession of child pornography, where all four convictions involved the same contraband images but possessed on four separate electronic devices, a sharply-divided court concludes that the Manual for Courts-Martial creates a separate offense for each separate possession of the contraband, affirming the convictions, the decision of the Navy-Marine Corps CCA, and the approved sentence. The dissenters, however, find that the Manual is not so clear and would resolve the ambiguity in favor of lenity, merging the four convictions into one and remanding for reassessment of the sentence.
Judge Ryan writes for the court, joined by Chief Judge Stucky and Judge Sparks. Judge Ohlson dissents, joined by Senior Judge Erdmann.
Corporal (E-4) Forrester was convicted contrary to his pleas of not guilty, by a general court-martial composed of a military judge alone, of six specifications of wrongful possession of child pornography in violation of Article 134. Forrester was acquitted of five additional specifications of the same offense. He was sentenced to confinement for 40 months, total forfeitures, reduction to E-1, and a dishonorable discharge. The convening authority approved the sentence.
Forrester was originally charged with just seven specifications of wrongful possession of child pornography, but those specifications alleged date ranges beginning before and ending after the effective date of Executive Order 13593 (enumerating a child pornography offense under Article 134). To address this overlap, the military judge split the seven specifications into eleven, separating them into pre- and post-Order time periods. Then, after findings, the military judge merged the six convictions into four, each alleging possession of child pornography on a different electronic device: three external hard drives and a Google email account. The prosecution’s evidence proved that 23 images and one video, copies of which were found on each device, were contraband child pornography.
After findings, Forrester’s defense counsel moved for the four convictions “to be merged into a single specification for purposes of sentencing only,” arguing that the images and time periods were the same and “the only difference is the device on which it was charged.” Slip op. at 4 (quoting record). Forrester’s goal was to be sentenced for one act of wrongful possession, not four. The military judge denied the motion and the NMCCA affirmed, concluding that “each charged possession was a separately punishable transaction.” Slip op. at 5. CAAF then granted review to determine:
Whether punishing the same transaction of obtaining child pornography with four convictions unreasonably exaggerates Appellant’s criminality and triples his punitive exposure, constituting an unreasonable multiplication of charges.