Porn Conviction Causes Outrage

This is a strange case. Based on the reported facts the result is so wrong, so unfair, that at first I questioned their accuracy. Subsequent articles confirm the story. Julie Amero is a substitute teacher in Norwich, Connecticut. In October 2004 she substituted in a 7th-grade class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich. Before class started she used a classroom computer to email her husband. She left the classroom for a moment. When she returned two students were using the computer to look at new-hair-styles.com. She sent them away from the computer and started class. A short while later pornographic images began popping up on the computer monitor. She tried unsuccessfully to close them but did not turn off the computer because she had been told to leave it on. Students saw images of naked men and women, including an image of a couple engaged in oral sex. The prosecution claimed that Amero caused the images to appear by clicking on a web site. Amero’s defense argued that malware installed on the computer before the day in question caused the pornographic images. On these facts a jury last month convicted Amero, after a three-day trial, of impairing the morals of a child. She faces a sentence of up to 40 years. Juror Mark Steinmetz was quoted after trial: “So many kids noticed this going on . . . It was truly uncalled for. I would not want my child in her classroom. All she had to do was throw a coat over it or unplug it. We figured even if there were pop-ups, would you sit there?” John Christoffersen, Substitute Teacher’s Porn Conviction Sparks Tech Debate, Law.Com, 14-Feb-07 (Subscription Required)

I think she would have received a lesser sentence for selling crack in the classroom.

Amero’s conviction has provoked outrage. For a representative sample see here, here, here, and here. Among the jaw-dropping facts and allegations:

  • The prosecution failed to examine the computer for the presence of spyware, which could generate images without a user electing to do so.
  • The computer was running Windows98 and Internet Explorer 5.0, its antivirus software had expired, and it lacked firewall and antispyware protection. This security-challenged computer ran unprotected in a 7th-grade public school classroom.
  • The trial judge did not allow Amero’s expert witness to complete testimony that Amero did not cause the images to appear.

It seems the jury applied a strict liability standard: Amero was the adult in the room when the porn bomb went off, so she is guilty.

11 thoughts on “Porn Conviction Causes Outrage”

  1. Wow. My heart goes out to this woman. Forty years for pop-ups?! I’ve heard of criminals getting off for a lot less. Amero most definitely had the best intentions when she tried to get help from the other teachers but who can stop a bunch of curious 12-year olds from looking at the screen. Given that Amero was probably unfamiliar with computers, she still made an effort to try and remove the pop-ups from the screen. I feel like Amero is being subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Isn’t 40 years a bit rash for something so little especially given the facts of the case? If anything, the school should be held liable for not keeping their computers updated and their anti-spyware current. Just because this happened on a teacher’s computer doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen on say a library computer where children are given complete access. If this happened on one of the library computers, then the school would most definitely be held liable for not keeping updated software. So its hard to understand why this information isn’t found to be relevant in Amero’s case? If the spyware software was current, then the pop-ups would never have popped up to begin with.

    It’s also a little shocking to hear that the computer expert, W. Herbert Horner’s testimony in the defense of Amero was barred from the trial. I believe Amero wasn’t given a fair trial at all. And the fact that she was convicted of “endangering children” and is facing a sentence of 40 years is a complete mockery of the American justice system.

  2. This is outrageous! Serving 40 years in prison for an action that is hardly a crime? In this information era, children absorb much of what goes on in the outside world from an early age. With all the TV shows and R-rated movies, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the seventh graders have already been “morally impaired”. Moreover, if something like this can happen in a public school, it can easily happen anywhere.

    Sure, some may argue that the teacher could have put something over the monitor if she could not turn the computer off, but give the lady a break! How can we blame her for going off into a panic? For someone who knew little to nothing about computers (www.usatoday.com), she tried to close the pop-ups to her best abilities. The least that the court could do for a crime that was carried out under good intentions is to collect all of the necessary information, let her have a fair hearing, and give judgment based on the degree of seriousness of the crime.
    But I must question what the crime really is–was she in fault for openning a link that led to the photos? According to the sources, the pictures suddenly start to appear on their own. Or did she commit a crime for leaving a bunch of seventh graders in a room with a computer that displayed pages of porn? That could possibly be a negligence claim, but no further than that.

  3. First of all, I strongly agree with apatidar about the liability being put on the school for not updating their anti-spyware. Also, since she had been instructed to leave the computer on, it is not unusual for her to panic and simply try and close the windows to the best of her ability (“She tried unsuccessfully to close them but did not turn off the computer because she had been told to leave it on”.) Nevertheless, I believe she was negligent in leaving the room and under strict liability I don’t believe the court to have given extremely an unfair trial. The sentence may be too harsh, but I don’t think her trial was as ridiculous as it first appears to many people.

  4. I agree with apatidar’s final point about how Amero was charged and convicted with four counts of impairing the morals of a child. What kind of law is this? What constitutes “impairing the morals of a child”? Who is to say that one single pornographic accident will cause a child to grow up to be a sex offender or some other kind of criminal? What if a child accidentally sees his/her parents naked? Should the parents be convicted of “impairing the morals of a child”? Where do we draw the line? I cannot believe the court didn’t consider these questions when deciding Amero’s sentence. I also don’t feel as if she’s negligent. She was a substitute teaching doing her job. So what if she left the computer on while not in the room? She was told to leave it on!

  5. I also agree with everyone’s opinion on this care. I do not feel that the proposed punishment fits the crime at all. She did not purposely choose to show the class pornographic images and she was not being negligent. Her job as a substitute teacher was to substitute teach and not block pop-ops from the computer. Furthermore, she was even told to leave the computer on so she was merely following directions. From the “Washington Post” article online about this same story (http://blog.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2007/01/substitute_teacher_faces_jail.html?nav=rss_blog) the poor woman had no idea hot to get rid of the pop-ops. Alledging that she was surfing for pornographic images, I think, is an unfair accusation. And expecting her to throw a sweater or jacket over the monitor is outlandish. That is far beyond reasonable…If I saw an image like that on a computer, my first instinct would be to try and close the windows not throw a sweatshirt over the screen. It’s unfortunate that children were exposed to that, but it’s not at the fault of the substitute teacher. Also from the washingtonpost.com article, the students were supposedly in seventh grade. Even though that is still very young, by seventh grades the children aren’t completely unexposed to everything. Sentencing up to ten years per count is so severe for this case!

  6. This is in response to mfrey12’s comment,

    How is it not her fault? Regardless of the fact that she was a substitute teacher, she was the one in charge of the children in the room. They were her responsibility and whatever they were exposed to, should have been under her supervision. Keep in mind, again, that it is a strict liability case. So I repeat my question, how is it “not at all the fault of the teacher” from a strict liability standpoint, when it’s her job to supervise the children?

  7. Daniel K aka my roommate, I don’t believe this is a strict liability case, Randall was using metaphor when he said “porn bomb” and was trying to imply that the jury had sort of a zero-tolerance policy.
    There are two things that I keep thinking about after reading the facts of the case. Unfortunately, one of them tells me she should be guilty and the other said that she shouldn’t be. The first thing: The reason she was supposed to keep the computer on was so she could stay logged in because she didn’t know the user name/password. I believe this situation called for her to IGNORE this command and turn the computer off. I am positive the school could have called a technician to log her back in. The second thing stems from this quote I read in one of the articles. The quote is from the teacher’s expert witness. “This was one of the most frustrating experiences of my career, knowing full well that the person is innocent and not being allowed to provide logical proof.” If there is an appeal and the defense is allowed to show the entire results of the forensic examination in front of experienced computer people, including a computer literate judge and prosecutor, Julie Amero will walk out the court room as a free person.” After reading this quote, he has convinced me that it was not Julie Amero’s fault that this situation took place. His confidence in the statement is hard to ignore.
    After considering these 2 thoughts more, I came up with my personal decision. I believe she is partly in fault and that she should be guilty, but receive a lot less severe sentence. It is reasonable to conclude that a normal person would have panicked and made the wrong the decision in the situation or not been able to realize that the benefits outweigh the costs in the decision to turn the computer off.

  8. Sorry Professor Randall, I misinterpreted that last sentence. But even so, I still believe that since she was in charge of the children and is resonsible for anything that happens in that classroom, it’s incorrect to say that it is not at all her fault. The sentence is severe, clearly. But like my roomate says, she “panicked and made the wrong decision” which implies her actions were not right.

  9. The question, though, is whether she violated the state statute that defines “contributing to the morals of a minor,” not whether she panicked, exercised poor judgment, or is not the kind of person one would want teaching one’s child. I don’t know the prima facie case for this crime under Connecticut law, but I expect it requires proof that she intended to and actually caused children to be exposed to these images.

  10. I read an article from the Hartford Courant describing how Connecticut is trying to “become a national leader in protecting minors on the Internet.” I was not at all surprised to read this after seeing the outrageous 40 year sentence the substitute teacher is facing. It seems people over there are so ready to defend their children, they’ll snag anyone to show they’re making things safer. I believe a fair trial was not given since certain factors were not given enough credibility:
    1) the specs of the computer at the time were not taken into account
    2) the possibility that the children who were on the computer just before the incident were responsible for clicking on something was never considered
    3) the teacher was a “substitue” and told to follow the directions of leaving the computer on

    It is not unreasonable to blame the teacher, but 40 years is ridiculous. She clearly had a “brain-fart” and was negligent to some degree by not overriding the order to keep the computer on. While she should have turned off the monitor, her lack of foresight should not lead to such a harsh consequence. Furthermore, I agree with Professor Randall that the prima facie under Connecticut law should be looked at since it is my judgement that she by no means “intended ” to cause the children to be exposed to these images. Ultimately, there must be a new trial.

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