Prosecuting those who produce or enjoy child pornography is a vitally important yet seemingly horrible job -- to do it, you must face looking at the evidence.
In some cases it's "easy" -- some child-porn consumers are like baseball-card collectors and aim to get every video or photo in, say, what law-enforcement officials have labeled the "Vicky" series. So the material is familiar after a while.
But then you can stumble on something new, and maybe a detail hits you and you are all of a sudden stunned and revolted as if it's the first time seeing horrific images of a 14-month-old-girl getting raped or a terrified toddler in a bondage scene.
How do you deal with that? We talked to Sherri Zack and Robert Stabe, two veteran federal prosecutors at the Houston division of the U.S. Attorney's Office, where at any given time there may be 30 or so active cases under indictment. (We edited and condensed the interview.)
Hair Balls: How do you deal with having to look at that evidence? SZ: It's always difficult, and it doesn't matter how many times you've seen it, it's difficult every time. I think my reaction is the same as anyone else who had to see something that horrific; I try to limit how much I have to look. I limit to look at only what I absolutely have to.
RB: I kind of look to see what type of images in general there are -- are there a lot of bondage images, or are there a lot of really small toddlers and elementary-school age kids as opposed to pre-teen type age, just get an idea of that. But we just look at what we need to look at.
HB: The thing to me would be seeing some of these kids' eyes -- the idea of it, that would just freak me out. Are there things that just get to you every so often? RB: I can look at things and it gets put away in a spot -- I still recall images and describe to you want I've seen, but I don't talk about it at home. Sometimes I come across a girl that was, say, particularly cute that I remember and was just thinking, "Wow." These guys sometimes try to dress up these videos with music backgrounds and while we do see a lot of the same images, I'm still -- I don't guess surprised -- but it's more surprising when I see images I haven't seen before. When I come across one I haven't seen, it's more surprising or disturbing.
SZ: Some, like he said -- a particularly cute child or there could just be something that sticks with you. Some are more haunting than others. You mentioned "eyes." I feel the way Bob does, you leave it here [at work] as best you can. It's not that you flip a switch, but it's not a pleasant topic to talk about, you're not going to go home and share that with spouse.
HB: Do defendants tend to fit a type? SZ: It's a very nondiscriminatory offender list. They can be anything, I mean, you name it: engineers, doctors, lawyers, military, unemployed, retired. There doesn't seem to be any particular age parameter or anything other than most are male.
HB: What does the reaction of a defendant tend to be? "My life is over"? Do spouses tend to appear in court? RB: There is that reaction. There is also the concern, we haven't had it too much in our area, concern with the committing suicide. I mean it has happened here in the Houston area, it has happened around the United States. So I know I have had discussions with law enforcement when we have had that come up in a statement.
We have had spouses appear in court. Spouses, mothers, fathers.
HB: If you're at a cocktail party and someone asks what you do, do you just say "prosecutor"? I can't imagine something stopping conversation more than child pornography. SZ: If people ask what kind of cases you do, I certainly don't shy away from saying, "I prosecute child-exploitation cases." It's a good opportunity to educate people, especially people with children. How to keep your computer safe, what to look for. I certainly don't talk about the graphic images I've seen, but I do talk about how they can protect their kids.
(Increasingly, the content of child porn users' computers includes stolen cell-phone shots that some young girl or boy has sent to a friend.)
RB: We certainly see in the child-porn collections images that are self-taken, with camera phones and videos from web cameras where there are girls and boys performing sex acts on a webcam. And however that first started, that is now circulating on the Internet and is out there and being traded and downloaded by adults that are looking for child pornography.
SZ: We tell kids, unless it's a picture you wouldn't mind sending to your grandmother, don't post it. You may think it's between you and your boyfriend or the two of you, it's not. You have no control over it once it leaves you, you have completely lost control over it forever and you can't get it back. I think that's the hardest thing to impress upon children. HB: Anything else about the job you'd like to get across to people? SZ: It's incredibly rewarding. Knowing that they're not producing or possessing these images which are essentially crime scene photos -- because that's what they are; every one of those pictures is a crime-scene photo. It's a photo of a child being raped, molested, abused, manipulated -- that they can't do that anymore. Because every time that's viewed that child is re-victimized. I think we're doing something incredibly valuable and necessary and I don't see anything more rewarding than protecting children.
Check out the Department of Justice's Project Safe Childhood Web page for tips on protecting kids in these social-media days.