Afraid of public trial, author to plead guilty in online obscenity case
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She battled the federal government's allegations for more than a year and a half, but in the end, Karen Fletcher's mental health will win out over her principles. And First Amendment lawyers will lose a key chance to have a court determine whether text-only material can be considered obscene.
Ms. Fletcher has decided to plead guilty to six counts of distributing obscenity online stemming from fictional stories published on a members-only Web site.
First Amendment lawyers thought an acquittal in the case could have begun a trend -- proving that text-only cases do not rise to the level of obscenity standards.
The Donora woman was charged in September 2006 based on her "Red Rose" Web site, where Ms. Fletcher, 56, and others posted fictional stories that depicted the rape and torture of children -- including infants.
She and her high-profile First Amendment lawyers claimed that what she'd written was not obscene, and they hoped to prevail before a jury.
In their favor, they thought, was the fact that the federal government has never won a conviction based solely on text under current obscenity law.
But Ms. Fletcher, who has agoraphobia -- a fear of public places -- is not capable of sitting through what likely would be a weeklong trial, said one of her attorneys, Lawrence Walters.
"With a different client, with somebody who had the strength to fight, there might have been a different outcome," Mr. Walters said. "While we'd like her to be a standard-bearer on First Amendment issues, this is not the person to endure a trial.
"Even worse, should she be convicted, I don't know that she'd be able to withstand a jail sentence."
Instead of taking the risk, Ms. Fletcher is scheduled to plead guilty on Aug. 8 before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti.
Under the proposed plea agreement, Ms. Fletcher would avoid prison and be sentenced to a term of home detention.
"Our first obligation is always to our client, even though it may not be in the best interest of constitutional rights, in general," Mr. Walters said.
Throughout the duration of her case, Ms. Fletcher has appeared in court on the charges only once, though there have been a number of hearings.
In an affidavit, Ms. Fletcher wrote that she has almost no memory of her childhood up until the age of 14.
She explained that her writing started out just for her and was cathartic because she had been sexually abused as a child.
"At first I would capture a particular feeling of dread and try to weave it into a scenario that explained the feeling," she wrote.
She went on to say that she didn't know if the stories were based on her experiences or if they were completely fictitious.
Later in the affidavit, Ms. Fletcher described what she called her "monsters."
"I have always been afraid of monsters. The monsters in my life had always been real; for too long they were always there with unlimited access to me, and I was helpless to do anything about it," she wrote. "In my stories, I have created new monsters. [They] rise above the horror of the real life monsters. Somehow, making these monsters so much worse makes me feel better, and makes my life seem more bearable.
"I may still be afraid of the monsters, but at least in the stories, they prey on someone else, not me."
Throughout the case, Ms. Fletcher defended herself by noting that she required a $10 monthly membership fee to prevent minors from viewing the site, and that she carefully monitored it to prevent the posting of any pictures.
Reed Lee, a First Amendment attorney who has successfully defended a number of obscenity cases, said he believed Ms. Fletcher had a viable defense.
In today's society, he said, it's more difficult to find something that patently offends "contemporary community standards," which is required under obscenity law.
"I don't think many people think the standards are getting stricter. With text, you can always stop reading," Mr. Lee said. "You're less likely to be offended than if an image is just splashed at you."
The other requirements of the so-called "Miller test," set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973, include that the material appeals only to "prurient interests," and that it has no serious artistic, literary, social or political value.
"Even if we don't think there's political value in it, there's tremendous social value in breaking that spiral between silence and shame," Mr. Lee said, referring to people who realize there might be others in the world who share interests that some consider outside the norm.
Ms. Fletcher's guilty plea will not set any precedent related to text-only obscenity prosecutions, Mr. Lee said, because she is entering the plea voluntarily.
U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who would not comment for this story, has said in the past that Ms. Fletcher's stories were "disturbing, disgusting and vile."
She brought the prosecution, in part, because material like Ms. Fletcher's could embolden a person to commit sex crimes on children.
Ms. Buchanan confirmed there are other obscenity cases currently being investigated by her office, though she wouldn't specify if they are related to words or images.
Another textual case is pending in federal court in Albany, Ga., and there are a number of others involving imagery and movies being prosecuted by the federal government around the country.
One in Tampa is scheduled to go to trial May 27. In Pittsburgh, an obscenity case against Extreme Associates, a California company that makes graphic pornography depicting the rape and murder of women, is in limbo.
Though the case was filed in August 2003, it has still not been scheduled for trial. There have been no docket entries in the case since Aug. 17 of last year.
First Published May 17, 2008 12:00 am