The Next Chapter | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The federal government apparently thinks so. That's why Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney in Western Pennsylvania, prosecuted Donora resident Karen Fletcher on federal obscenity charges for stories Fletcher sold online.

On Aug. 7, Fletcher pled guilty to six counts of transmitting obscene materials -- six text-only stories provided on a members-only Web site. Fletcher was sentenced to five years probation, six months house arrest and a $1,000 fine. But while her case is over, questions about it remain.

"This has been an extremely troubling case from the start," says Robert Richards, co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University. "The way they used the obscenity statutes in this case goes far beyond the original intent of the law. And sadly, they'll mark this down in their books as a victory.

"The United States government has now secured an obscenity conviction based solely on the written word. I think that's extremely dangerous," continues Richards, who has followed this case since it began in 2006.

Fletcher had charged 29 customers $10 each to view the stories on her Web site, All of the stories depicted some form of rape, torture and/or murder of children, some as young as 2. One story, for example, depicts the rape of an 8-year-old girl and her 4-year-old sister at the hands of their therapist, according to court documents. Another depicts the abduction, rape and murder of an infant.

For prosecutors, the matter was straightforward. Under federal law, material can be found obscene if an average person would say it "appeals to prurient interests" and "describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way," and lacks "serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." And prosecutors noted that Fletcher hadn't just written the material; by selling it online, she was guilty of "transmitting" it as well.

"The premise of this prosecution is that words have power," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman told Judge Joy Flowers Conti at Fletcher's Aug. 7 hearing. Fletcher's work, he added, "was more horrific" than images and videos of child pornography found on the Internet -- even though such images record actual events, rather than imagined scenarios.

Asked by City Paper for his reaction to Kaufman's comments, Fletcher's Florida-based attorney Lawrence Walters replies, "Mr. Kaufman has a more active imagination than I do if he thinks that written thoughts are more horrific than actual child abuse. That's a very odd way to approach the world."

After her indictment, Fletcher retained Walters, one of the country's foremost First Amendment lawyers, who worked pro bono. Walters filed several briefs seeking to get the charges dismissed, and pledged he would prepare for trial. In court filings, Walters said Fletcher was abused as a child, and used the stories to confront her "monsters" as a form of therapy.

But Fletcher has also been diagnosed and treated for depression and agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that can cause panic attacks when sufferers are outside their homes. And as the possibility of prison time began sinking in, Fletcher decided to take the plea bargain.

"We did absolutely everything that we could to raise constitutional issues pretrial," Walters says. "As this thing kept going forward, it became obvious that Karen Fletcher was not able to face a trial or, God forbid, a prison sentence if we lost.

"She would not have been able to stand up through all of this or sit in a prison cell during an appeal, if necessary. She was not able to be the standard bearer for these First Amendment issues that the government was attacking."

Even as she waited for her hearing to begin, Fletcher -- a heavy-set woman with sandy brown hair, glasses and a non-descript tattoo on her left forearm -- sat rubbing her hands nervously and drying her palms with a tissue. As she addressed the court, she cried several times.

"I never meant for anything like this to happen. I'm sorry," she testified.

Prosecutors were not swayed. Fletcher's readers, Kaufman argued, had a "violent sexual interest in children," and her Web site "could encourage" such behavior. There have been no individual prosecutions that have been identified as customers, even though Fletcher gave investigators her list of customers. Nevertheless, Judge Conti apparently agreed with prosecutors, suggesting from the bench that writers bear responsibility for the actions their readers might take.

"If anyone would have read the story and acted upon it, a little child could have suffered devastation that you would have had to live with for the rest of your life," the judge told Fletcher.

Richards says the whole case seems to be overkill. Prosecutors will "tout this as a win," he says, "but what they did was get [Fletcher] to plead guilty because she was scared to death to go to prison. What we saw with this case was just the further erosion of ... First Amendment rights."

Walters says he doesn't forsee Fletcher's case affecting the defense against similar cases in the future. He said even federal prosecutors realized they were dealing with a "damaged" individual "and not the type of defendant you push to get a pound of flesh off of."

"This was a resolution that allowed the government to save face and will have essentially no impact on Karen Fletcher's life," Walters says. "She's an agoraphobic who doesn't leave the house, so house arrest is meaningless.

"I think this was a very good result for the client. When's the last time you ever saw a no-jail result in a federal prosecution? I've never seen one, so this was a good result for Karen Fletcher."

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