Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Reverses Hampden County Man’s Convictions for Possessing Child Pornography

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the convictions of a Hampden County man charged with possession of child pornography.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Rollins.

When the defendant brought his computer to a repair shop in 2009, the technician recovered an image of a young girl in a bikini.  The defendant said the picture was a photograph of his daughter.  Two days later, the defendant returned to the shop for additional repairs and the technician discovered approximately 1,200 images of naked and scantily clad young girls.  The technician called the police, who seized the defendant’s computer and began an investigation that resulted in the defendant being charged with six counts of possession of child pornography.  When contacted by the police, the defendant initially said the illegal images were probably placed on his computer by a friend.  During a subsequent interview with the police, the defendant said he had unintentionally found a child pornography website a few months beforehand.  He then decided to conduct his own secret investigation into child pornography on the Internet.  He was planning to deliver the results of his investigation to the police as soon as he was finished.

The defendant allowed a forensic computer examiner employed by the New England State Police Information Network to examine his hard drive.  The forensic examiner recovered 6,094 suspicious images and provided them to a Holyoke police detective, who personally reviewed approximately 1,200 of the images, which depicted either nude or barely-dressed young girls.   Out of the thousands of images found on the defendant’s computer, the Commonwealth selected seven to charge the defendant (five counts containing one image each and one count containing two images).  The defendant was convicted of all six counts and the trial judge sentenced him to serve two and a half years on the first three counts and two and a half years, from an after (for a total of five years), on the second three counts.

The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the defendant’s convictions for a variety of errors that occurred during his trial and remanded the case back to the district court for a new trial.  The Court found that the defendant’s trial attorney was ineffective, the trial judge gave insufficient instructions to the jury, and the prosecutor gave a “misleading soliloquy on [the] legislative intent” of the child pornography law during his closing argument.

More interesting than the reversal of the defendant’s convictions was the SJC’s ruling regarding whether the defendant could be convicted of multiple counts of possession of child pornography when all of the images were stored in the same computer during the same time period.  The Court concluded that multiple convictions for a single collection of child pornography images violated the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the United State Constitution, which prohibits multiple punishments for a single crime.  A conviction for a first-offense possession of child pornography charge carries a sentence of up to five years in state prison.  Therefore, a defendant who possessed 100 separate images on his computer could theoretically be sentenced to 500 years in prison if he could be charged for each image.  After reviewing the legislative history of the child pornography statute, the Court held that such a possibility was contrary to the intent of the statute.  Therefore, in this type of case, a defendant can be convicted and sentenced for only a single violation of the child pornography law.