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For more than four years, local Lutheran pastor Don Carlson has had the darkest of clouds hanging over him. He may finally be able to start seeing some light.
In March 1998, federal agents searched his home and seized his computer. A year later a federal grand jury indicted Carlson, senior pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Woodland Heights, on 14 counts of possessing and distributing child pornography (see "Graven Images," October 19, 2000).
The hard drive of Carlson's computer had about 80 images of child pornography on it, the feds said. They also alleged that Carlson had sent two pictures over the Internet and received two others.
Carlson's lawyers have argued that the pastor, who has long pushed programs aimed at helping gay youths, was conducting church-authorized research for his dissertation on gay teens. The photos were sent to him unsolicited because he was in online chat rooms, they said.
On June 28, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes threw out all the evidence, saying the search warrant that produced it was based on "dubious information from an unreliable source," and that the warrant "grossly misrepresented" the veracity and character of that source.
That source is a New Yorker named Harry Conners, a gay ex-cop who frequented the same chat rooms as Carlson and said the preacher had actively traded child pornography with other online users. His affidavit was the basis for the search warrant, but Hughes noted that the government never made any claims for his veracity: "Although it is clear that no one could have asserted anything useful about Conners, [the government] never averred that Conners was truthful or that his information was reliable," Hughes wrote.
The judge also said Conners had received the same images as Carlson, but waited six days to report the incident. "As time passed, Conners' information became more unreliable and his motives more suspect," Hughes wrote.
Conners gave a deposition in the case that showed how shaky a witness he likely would have been if he had taken the stand in a trial. He testified that he went to the FBI "because I didn't want to be in a position where I could become a defendant because I was -- had in my hard drive these pictures." But when Carlson's attorneys subpoenaed two of Conners's computers -- in part because they thought he was offering up Carlson in order to escape prosecution himself -- Conners couldn't provide them. He said he threw out one that had nothing on it relevant to the case, and he said the other was permanently damaged when he dropped it on the sidewalk as he was headed to the post office to mail it.
"Conners was not trustworthy, and his information was unreliable," Hughes wrote.
Carlson's attorney, Joel Androphy, said last week that his client was not giving media interviews, feeling burned by such coverage as KHOU-TV labeling him the "Porno Pastor" after the indictments were issued.
But, Androphy says, Carlson is grateful for the continued support he received from the members of his church. "An innocent person's rights were violated," Androphy said. "The congregation will not be surprised by his vindication; they supported and believed in him from the beginning."
The Zion Lutheran congregation met shortly after Carlson was indicted in 1999 and voted to support its preacher. "There was just a tremendous amount of trust," Peggy Fortner, a former congregation president, told the Houston Press in 2000.
No allegations of pedophilia were ever lodged against Carlson; in fact, the government did not object when he requested permission to chaperone kids on out-of-town trips even as the pornography charges were pending.
Church members had complained during the investigation about what they called attempts at intimidation by investigators. In court documents, prosecutors said that Carlson had told several congregation members that he had, because of his research, been sent pornographic images that he had not asked for.
Hughes's ruling does not dismiss the case against Carlson. But because he threw out any evidence acquired through the search warrant, there's little else upon which to make a case. The government can also appeal the ruling. Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Schultz, who is handling the case, was out of town and unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman for the office said no decision has been made on appealing or continuing the case.
"We are reviewing the court's order, and more importantly, its opinion," said Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy G. Herrera.
If the case does proceed, Androphy is ready to use a First Amendment argument, saying the government is punishing someone for doing legitimate research. "At no time did Pastor Carlson deal in child pornography out of any prurient interest or for personal satisfaction," Androphy argued in court documents. "To the extent that Pastor Carlson endeavored to explore the Internet, he did so as part of his duty as a minister and in connection with his dissertation."
Although Carlson is not now talking to the media, the soft-spoken preacher told the Press in 2000 that after the indictment was issued he was humiliated and "devastated," adding, "There was deep depression for a while."
He said he had been bolstered by the support of friends and fellow clergy members who had packed the courtroom for his arraignment.
"This is something that will be with me for the rest of my life," he said. "But it isn't the easy times that help you grow, it's the difficult times."