Police across the country fight a tireless battle against child pornography. And while they do make dents in the trade of images of sexually exploited children, their efforts have extracted a heavy cost from one family.
On April 16, 2003, the Toronto Police held a news conference to announce the arrest of five men on charges of child pornography. A warrant was sworn out for a sixth. Names and ages were released for all of the suspects as part of what's called Operation Snowball -- Canada's biggest investigation into child pornography on the Internet. The media came out in droves.
One of the charged was a Toronto man named James LeCraw. But after further investigation, charges against him were withdrawn. But James Lecraw never recovered from the stigma of being associated with such a horrific crime. He lost his job. His friends. His reputation. And eventually his will to live.
On July 19th, James LeCraw killed himself. CBC Radio reporter Kellie Hudson has been investigating the life and death of James LeCraw.
The arrests of James LeCraw and several other Toronto men in a high-profile child-pornography case in April, 2003, were big news. What happened to Mr. LeCraw later was not. Therein lies a tragic tale that graphically illustrates what can happen when police and prosecutors cross the line between their desire to publicize their successes in the fight against the most despicable of crimes and the individual's right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty. It's also a cautionary tale about the potential consequences when the media put the public's need to know above the individual's right to privacy and then fail to follow the story to its conclusion.
Mr. LeCraw and the other men were arrested as part of Operation Snowball, the Canadian portion of a major international investigation into persons using credit cards to acquire child pornography over the Internet. Toronto Police Chief Julian Fantino trumpeted the sweep at a press conference, using the occasion to call for more government funding and tougher laws to help stamp out the burgeoning illegal trade.
Chief Fantino was justified in using such an occasion to make an important point about a heinous crime. But he went further, using inflammatory language to describe the actions of the accused, all of whom were named and whose ages were provided. "They only have one thing in common," he declared. "That is the criminal approach to their relationship with children."
When the Crown subsequently withdrew all charges against Mr. LeCraw, there was no fanfare. In fact, there was not even a media release. By then, as CBC Radio revealed in a poignant documentary last week, Mr. LeCraw had become the victim. He lost his job as executive director of a non-profit agency that provides computers to schools and was unable to land another one. His friends shunned him and the once outgoing man became withdrawn. This past July, he killed himself, but not before leaving behind a letter accusing Chief Fantino of issuing an irresponsible public statement that ruined his life. He asked his family to seek the legal redress he himself could not afford.
Police do not need to identify those arrested to make their point that they are working hard to suppress a horrible crime or that they need more ammunition to win the battle. Even in major drug sweeps, the accused are seldom named, although such information is publicly available. Police and prosecutors need to take particular precautions when the crime involves such dreadful consequences for the accused.
A month before he died, Mr. LeCraw called for changes in the way people accused of particularly offensive crimes are treated by the police and the media. He told his brother that "there's no real innocence, just unproven guilt."
That's not at all how our justice system is supposed to function. Police, prosecutors and the media should heed Mr. LeCraw's pleas for change. We need a system that is as open and transparent as possible, one where the police are not silenced or the media restrained. But they must exercise good judgment. If they insist on publicizing the names of those arrested, they must give equal weight to the dropping of charges or to court acquittals. Society has a powerful interest in suppressing child pornography, but not at the expense of destroying innocent lives.
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.
[injusticebusters.org editorial: This means more than half the people charged were innocent.]
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 wife-swapping.com 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 Townsend - 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."