Friday, July 23, 2004

Judge scolds teen girls for nude photos

Judge Philip Trompeter will dismiss charges if the girls stay out of trouble for a year.

Two Northside High School girls who took nude pictures of themselves and e-mailed them to their boyfriends last year said they only did it to be flirtatious.

It wasn't long before they realized the consequences: loss of friends, no more school activities, seeing themselves on Internet sites and felony charges.

By the time the girls faced Roanoke County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge Philip Trompeter on Thursday, all joking was aside.

"You were degrading and hurting yourselves doing this," Trompeter told them.

Both 16-year-olds were charged with production and dissemination of child pornography. The Roanoke Times was allowed access to the court proceedings on Thursday on the condition that the girls not be named.

No one in the courtroom Thursday, even prosecutor Rick Buchanan, seemed to want felony charges on the girls' records for what one attorney called "a stupid Christmastime prank." Trompeter took the charges under advisement and if the girls stay out of trouble for a year, he will dismiss them.

The amateur photo shoot that is now infamous at Northside High School and elsewhere took place the day after Christmas 2003. Buchanan said one of the girls received a digital camera and tripod for Christmas, and they decided to photograph themselves in one girl's bedroom.

Afterward, they e-mailed the pictures to their boyfriends, who apparently e-mailed them to other people. Before it was all over, Buchanan said, the photos had spread to schools throughout the Roanoke Valley.

"I suppose I could say that it would be unrealistic to assume that if these guys were receiving photographs of this nature that they would only share it with their priests at the confessional," Trompeter said.

Only one boy who received the pictures was charged with possession of child pornography. That charge was taken under advisement in May and will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble.

One girl's mother went to Northside High when she found out about the pictures, and with the help of school resource officer Corey Newman, students were told to delete the images from their hard drives.

The mother testified that her daughter's nude pictures were also posted on three different Web sites. She called Internet providers and a group that works to prevent exploitation of children, and the pictures were removed from the sites.

But the woman said it will be a long time before she will be able to stop searching the Internet under her daughter's name, worried that she will find more pictures.

The first issue debated in court Thursday was whether the photographs really qualified as "sexually explicit," which is the language used in the Code of Virginia.

Buchanan said the definition of "sexually explicit" includes nudity and a lewd and lascivious presentation. He argued that the definition applied in this case because the girls' breasts and part of their buttocks were exposed, and because in at least two photographs, the girls posed in a sexually provocative way.

Under the statute, he said, the showing of a female breast qualifies as nudity.

The girls' attorneys, Nick Horn and Richard Lawrence, argued that the girls were not nude because they were wearing underwear.

"My client has on what Victoria's Secret would call 'boy shorts' and Mr. Lawrence's client is wearing panties, too," Horn said.

He also argued that the statute was adopted to protect children from adults who exploit them sexually, not to punish children.

"After I looked at Virginia, the Fourth Circuit and surrounding circuits, I could not find any fact pattern that fits the type of charge here," Horn said. "All dealt with a third-party adult."

To say the girls were criminally exploiting themselves, "I think you'd have to take that with a grain of salt and a wink," Horn said.

Trompeter disagreed that the statute was only meant for adults. He said it is to protect children from exploitation, even if it they are doing it themselves. He essentially ruled that the girls could be convicted of those crimes, but it was within his discretion to determine whether they should be.

Horn and Lawrence called both girls to the stand, and they testified that their lives have been turned upside-down since the incident occurred. They have been punished in many ways by their parents and scorned by their friends.

Both were made to quit their school activities and are not allowed to participate ever again. They are allowed to attend events. One girl said she would probably try to graduate early.

When Trompeter launched into his final thoughts, he said one of the worst things the girls did was disappoint their parents, who sat in the audience and listened.

"I'm the only person in this room that sees them from this angle, and they are so sad," he said. "I'm really more angry about what you did to your parents."

He admonished the girls to be more mindful of their actions in the future.

"I don't want the kinds of decisions you make in the future to be the kinds of decisions that are going to degrade you," he said. "I want what you do in the future to be things that will bring honor to you and your names."

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