Graven Images

A respected preacher gets busted for child pornography on his computer. Has he delved into the worst of cyberspace depravity or just the stuff of scholarly research?

It's certainly not him, even as he talks about what his life has been like since the search warrant and the TV cameras came down on him in March 1998.

"After the initial shock wore off, I was really devastated," he says calmly. "There was deep depression for a while. But I had a lot of good friends who kind of stuck with me; in some ways the initial time was the worst of times and the best of times. But people rallied around me -- I got tons of cards and a lot of support.

"It was a humiliating experience to go through, but one of the great things was when I was indicted and appeared in court and the courtroom was filled with congregational members and fellow clergy. There wasn't enough room in Judge [Calvin] Botley's court. That was edifying, to see people believed in me and what I was doing."

Pastor Don Carlson is a kiddie porn trafficker, the government says.
Pastor Don Carlson is a kiddie porn trafficker, the government says.
Joel Androphy says his client, Carlson, will never agree to a plea bargain.
Joel Androphy says his client, Carlson, will never agree to a plea bargain.

Edifying? Carlson is obviously a guy who carefully screens his words. There must be pain and frustration, but he keeps a lid on it. "This is something that will be with me the rest of my life," he says. "But it isn't the easy times that help you grow, it's the difficult times."

Carlson's attorneys told him not to talk about the specifics of the case because of some intriguing nuances. Androphy believes he has a very good chance of getting the initial search warrant thrown out because it has fatal defects relating to Conners's veracity. If the judge throws the warrant out, the government can't use as evidence any pictures that were stored on the computer that was seized during the search.

If that happens, the only way the government could make a case -- in the unlikely event it decided to proceed -- would be to use statements Carlson might make to reporters, or his congregation, explaining that the pictures showed up on his computer only as part of his research.

"Defendant Carlson has confessed to several witnesses that he did, in fact, knowingly possess illegal child pornography," a prosecution court document says. "The government also has credible and sworn evidence that defendant Carlson further offered to confess his guilt again to the entire congregation of Zion Lutheran Church, but was talked out of it by members of his church council at a private church council meeting."

The government hasn't turned over such evidence to the defense, Androphy says, and procedural rules would have required it to do so by now.

"Carlson may have told people that he received some pictures after going on-line to do research, but did he "confess to an Internet crime'? Never," Androphy says.

Prosecutors say they will show that Carlson not only received pornographic pictures of children but passed at least two such photos on to Conners. Androphy and Berg deny that happened, saying Carlson was only one of several recipients of a large e-mailing of pictures that, at least by him, were not requested. No doubt road-testing potential jury arguments, they say that if Carlson responded to the message -- even to say, "Don't send any more of this" -- he could have inadvertently sent the photo that was attached to the initial message.

At most, though, the evidence in the case shows only four -- and probably just two -- such pictures were ever sent from Carlson's computer, according to what Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Schultz told U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes in a hearing earlier this year. But the prosecutor's grasp of the on-line world seemed shaky at the hearing -- he said that e-mail address headers that had been printed out by Conners showed he received two pictures from Carlson; as far as the other two pictures, Schultz said they were "intercepted" by Conners when he saw Carlson sending them to other chat room members.

Such an "interception" is impossible, the judge and defense lawyers said; Schultz then said Conners had simply seen e-mail headers of photo attachments sent by Carlson that described kiddie porn. The actual number of photos Carlson is alleged to have sent has not been made clear.

Whether two or four, the number of pictures allegedly sent -- even the 80 or so pictures found on the hard drive -- is not especially large, in terms of child-pornography arrests. Newspapers regularly report the prosecution of kiddie-porn aficionados whose computers are packed with hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of images that were sent or received from around the world.

When it comes to pornography involving eight-year-old boys and girls performing sex acts, of course, a zero-tolerance policy would seem a no-brainer. But Carlson's lawyers argue that they could send anyone an e-mail with an illegal photo attached -- even dozens of such e-mails -- and if the photos are opened, the recipient would be guilty of possession and the evidence would remain on his hard drive.

The warrant for Carlson's hard drive also listed other items that the government said are typically found in the home or office of a user of child pornography, such as an abundance of catalogs, magazines or legitimate books that show kids posing. None of that was found, meaning there's no "secondary evidence" to build a case against Carlson.

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