Eighth Circuit Finds Sufficient Evidence in Multiple-User Child Pornography Case – U.S. v. Landsdown

November 18, 2013 by David S. Seltzer

In child pornography crimes involving a shared household computer, the defendant often argues that prosecutors haven’t proven that he or she was the one who downloaded the material. In my experience as a defense attorney specializing in cyber crimes, prosecutors often respond by attempting to do just that: showing that the defendant was the only one home when the material was downloaded, for example, or that another household member didn’t have access to the software used to download it. But in United States v. Landsdown, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t cite any arguments in this vein when it upheld the conviction of Ronnie Landsdown. Rather, the court said a reasonable jury could have chosen to believe prosecutors’ version of the story, over Landsdown’s arguments.

Ronnie Landsdown shared a house in western Missouri with five other people and a houseguest. Police noticed that an IP address in Landsdown’s name was sharing child pornography. After getting a warrant, they searched the house and found pornography on a laptop and a desktop computer. Housemate David Guy Hicks admitted to downloading the pornography on the laptop but not the desktop. The desktop was used by all six roommates and the guest, was not password protected and was located in a common area of the house. Landsdown owned the computer, fixed it when broken, paid for the Internet connection and created the user account used to download the pornography. He did not install the software used to download it. Three other roommates denied downloading it; two others had individual user accounts or folders. Prosecutors charged Landsdown with receiving the child pornography, and a jury eventually convicted him and sentenced him to five years in prison.

On appeal, Landsdown argued that the court should have granted his motion for judgment of acquittal because the evidence was insufficient to prove knowing receipt. The Eighth Circuit disagreed. Under a deferential review standard, it found that a rational jury could have decided that the evidence pointed to Landsdown. He owned the computer and the Internet connection, the Eighth Circuit noted. Furthermore, the appeals court said, Landsdown was nonchalant when one of his roommates told him there was child pornography on the computer; he allegedly shrugged it off and said he’d look into it later. Because everyone in the house denied downloading the pornography, the Eighth said, the jury as trier of fact could reasonably conclude that the prosecution’s testimony was more credible than Landsdown’s. With that, it affirmed the district court.

This decision is surprising for its brevity—it’s three pages long—as well as for its lack of direct evidence connecting Landsdown to the crime. The Eighth Circuit is, of course, right that juries are entitled to a lot of deference. Juries hear witness testimony in person; appeals judges can work only from whatever written record this produces. But where there’s nothing on the record to support a jury’s decision, an appeals court can and should reverse the jury. American courts require that the accused be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; in this case, the charge was knowingly receiving child pornography. Yet the strongest pieces evidence against the defendant are the denials of his housemates—all of which are just as self-interested as his denial—and the fact that he paid the Internet bills. More should be required to send a person to prison for five years and brand him for life as a sex offender.

If you’re charged with a serious crime involving computers, technology and the Internet, don’t wait to call the cyber crime defense attorneys at Seltzer Law, P.A. The firm is led by David Seltzer, an experienced former cyber crime prosecutor in Miami. For a free consultation, call us today at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333) or send us an email.

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