Karen Fletcher Pleads Guilty to Internet Obscenity

PITTSBURGH - Karen Fletcher, the Donora, Pennsylvania woman who ran the RedRoseStories.com Website, which the government charged contained obscene text pieces involving sex with and torture of underage characters, today pleaded guilty to six counts of "using an interactive computer service to distribute obscene materials."

Fletcher, whose site had 29 subscribers worldwide and charged $10 per month for access - then her sole source of income - received, under a plea agreement worked out between U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan's office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen R. Kaufman and Trial Attorney Michael Yoon, both of the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (CEOS) of the Justice Department, and defense counsel Jerry Mooney and Lawrence W. Walters, a sentence of five years' probation, including six months of house arrest with electronic monitoring, plus a $1,000 fine. U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti pronounced the sentence, and could have imposed as much as five years in prison, but the government agreed that such a sentence was not appropriate.

"None of this will have any effect on her day-to-day life," Walters commented. "She stays home all day every day. She is agoraphobic , and it would be worse for her to go somewhere than not to go anywhere, so when we negotiated this, when we talked about probation and supervised release and home detention, all the different options that did not include jail, none of them really have any impact on her day-to-day existence, so they're not particularly concerning to her. What she wanted to avoid was having to forcibly leave her home, either for trial or for a jail sentence, but the home detention and the probation won't affect her day-to-day living at all."

Fletcher's was the first of what appears to be a Justice Department targeting of "obscene text," as evidenced by its indictment, in June of 2007, of Frank McCoy for "us[ing] an interactive computer service to transmit to the Middle District of Georgia and elsewhere links to three websites ... which contained obscene 'fantasy' stories describing in explicit and graphic detail the sexual abuse, rape, and murder of children, and from which websites the obscene stories were downloaded into the Middle District of Georgia and elsewhere."

But Walters doesn't consider the Fletcher case to be a "win" for the government.

"The government didn't get anything out of this case," Walters observed. "It didn't get a finding on the merits that anything was obscene, it didn't get any pound of flesh, didn't put anybody in jail; I don't know that it would particularly scare anybody, you know, a probationary sentence; I don't know how much of a deterrent that would actually be for anybody. This case fizzled out once the government saw who Karen Fletcher was and how it would impact her to actually go to trial or be sentenced to any kind of serious incarceration. The blood would be on their hands if they pushed it, so to their credit, the AUSA and Jerry Mooney and I were able to negotiate something that was reasonable under the circumstances and that let the government save face and that prevented Karen Fletcher from going to jail."

"The Max Hardcore case, at least thus far, is a win for the government by comparison; they got a determination by a jury on the merits that something was obscene and they can check that off as a determination that they can use in future cases and so forth," Walters continued. "But in terms of Karen Fletcher's case, this was just a way for everybody to get rid of this case in such a manner that would cause no further damage to either side and let the government focus on other cases. They got this McCoy case in Athens, Georgia that involves written material as well, a federal case that involves some of the same kind of stuff. This is a guy who's been writing this kind of material for over a decade and kind of challenged the government to come after him, and they did; they indicted him. So to the extent that the government wants to push a case and get a jury determination on the merits, that erotic stories are obscene, that's probably the case they're going to do it with, and in light of the fact that they have that other one, this one [Fletcher] is not particularly important and wasn't important any longer."

As has been noted, before Fletcher, it had been nearly two decades since the government had tried to target "obscene text," and some question whether there's a basis for it either in the child porn laws or in the Constitution.

"Written pornography obviously does not depict the actual abuse of children, and does not foster the market for such abuse, except in the sort of attenuated way that the Supreme Court has already found unconvincing," wrote attorney Timothy Sandefur on his blog, citing the Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition. "These types of prosecutions are not aimed at people who actually abuse children, and do nothing to protect children from such abuse. They are simply outdated attempts at enforcing decency by prohibiting certain written words: just the sort of thing attempted centuries ago by the banning of Fanny Hill (who, by the way, is depicted as a minor). And not enforcing public decency, either, but private decency. In any case, they have no foundation in the law of child pornography."

And so, Karen Fletcher will continue life pretty much as she has lived it for several years, with friends doing her shopping for her, and not leaving her house except for emergencies. However, according to Walters, she's given up on running her website or anything like it.

"I don't even know if she's got a new computer right now," Walters said. "She's either using somebody else's computer or she's got a new one, because I've communicated with her by email since the whole thing has occurred and since her computer [that housed her website] was seized. I don't know if that's particularly significant for her, but she is communicating with the outside world even in the absence of that particular computer. However, in terms of her probation, an absolute prohibition on viewing pornography is overreaching, according to a few of the courts that have considered it, so we don't see that too much anymore. But in this case, there is no prohibition on coming in contact with sexually oriented material. But she's not going to restart her website."