'Sexting' and the single-minded prosecutor

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During the height of the Vietnam War, an unidentified general allegedly uttered one of the most memorable, but appalling, cliches of the 20th century: "In order to save the village, it was necessary to destroy it."

Because the Viet Cong blended in with noncombatants, it seemed perfectly logical to U.S. military intelligence to drop cluster bombs on whomever happened to be working in the rice paddies that day. Let God sort 'em out -- America's goal was to liberate as many villages as possible.

There's something of a "destroy the village" mentality operating in the Wyoming County prosecutor's office in the northeastern part of Pennsylvania. District Attorney George Skumanick Jr. believes child pornography charges are warranted for the three teenage girls who refused his generous offer of probation along with a five-week, 10-hour "re-education program" designed to put them on the straight and sexless narrow.

The girls are charged with the possession, manufacture and distribution of child pornography via cell-phone text messaging. It doesn't even matter that other than the exposed breasts of one of the girls, no genitalia or sexual behavior is seen in the cell-phone images. Two of the girls are wearing bras and one is flashing a peace sign, which is pretty perverted in some parts of the country, I suppose. There is no meaningful correlation between the photos, the intent of the photos or the law.

But in the eyes of the district attorney's office, there's something threatening about girls acting goofy in cell-phone photos, especially if they live where the county seat is a place called Tunkhannock, which sounds suspiciously like the punch line of a dirty joke.

If convicted of trafficking in the sexual objectification of their own bodies, the three newly minted felons will have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives. They'll also feel the sting of Megan's Law because even the most well-meaning statute is useless if its original intent isn't subverted every day by actual legal practice.

Meanwhile, the teenage boys who spread the photos around aren't facing any legal sanctions, because, well, that would indicate consistency and a modicum of internal logic at work.

Is this starting to sound like the American military dropping napalm on a Vietnamese village in order to save it? The district attorney of Wyoming County, a 20-year veteran of that office, believes charging children with corrupting the morals of other children with cell phones is a reasonable way to deal with the epidemic of "sexting."

There must be something about living in a rural parts of the state that encourages some prosecutors to pursue their creepiest fantasies. Why are they always relentless moralists determined to pursue their vision of a teenage landscape scrubbed free of sexuality no matter who gets hurt or how ridiculous their community looks in the process?

When the lawyers for the girls asked to see the "pornographic images" to mount their defense, Mr. Skumanick's office refused on the grounds that his office would be committing a crime by sharing the photos.

You don't have to be a member of the Taliban's Department for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue to agree that kids exchanging photos of their naked bodies by cell phone is truly a stupid form of adolescent behavior.

Is this case worth prosecuting even if indicting the very children you're ostensibly trying to protect makes sense? What is the district attorney of Wyoming County thinking?



Reefer Madness II Department:

I was pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of e-mails and dozens of phone calls about my Tuesday column on ending the drug war. With the exception of two e-mailers who accused me of promoting drug abuse, I can say without fear of contradiction that you get it! Our national drug policy is insane. I intend to write about this periodically.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama said during his online town hall that he didn't think legalizing drugs was a good policy. He also said that questions about legalizing marijuana were among the most frequent queries.

Mr. Obama is probably too distracted to remember that he's already on record about "changing the paradigm" for drug enforcement. Don't go wobbly on us now, Barack.


Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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