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Naughton: The American dream turned sour, Part VIII

From all outside appearances, Patrick Naughton seemed the personification of the American dream

See also Part VII.

In traditional molestation cases, it is customary for defence attorneys to claim that the defendant didn't know he was dealing with a minor. The Internet, of course, bolsters such claims, because it shields both voices and visuals. As a result, Naughton's assertion that he thought KrisLA was role-playing -- a tactic that was thought to be merely a legal maneouver by some -- found support among others.

David Greenfield, a psychologist who has investigated the effects of the Web on people's behaviour, said users let their guard down online. The medium gives people a false sense of intimacy and timelessness, causing them to lose their inhibitions. In chatrooms, said Greenfield, it's not uncommon for people to type into the night, engaging in virtual pillow talk with partners calling themselves names such as WhiteTrashGirl or SweetTreat.

Greenfield, who wrote a book called Virtual Addiction: Help for Netheads, Cyberfreaks and Those Who Love Them (New Harbinger, 1999), is concerned that the Internet's effects on real-world behaviour hasn't been studied sufficiently. "These people may have been cajoled into acting out in ways they normally wouldn't," Greenfield said, even though he fears being branded "pro-paedophile" for questioning the FBI's tactics.

His argument (which would seem to support the one put forth by Naughton's defence team) holds that in cases like Naughton's there is no real minor involved and, thus, no real victim. Greenfield cites a study he conducted jointly with ABC News, which found that six percent of Internet users were "addicts". The study also showed that 31 percent of those said their online relationships had evolved into real-time sexual encounters. Just 13 percent of "regular" Internet users said the same. (As with many studies claiming to detect "addiction", including TV addiction and sex addiction, the criteria for defining Net addiction are subject to wide interpretation.)

In fact, Greenfield said, the FBI's approach may be creating crimes and criminals where none would otherwise exist: "The question in my mind is, does the fact that these people have been ensnared mean that they would have acted on it had it been a real child?"

Brian Getz, a San Francisco lawyer who has defended cases similar to Naughton's, agrees with Greenfield. Getz argued that the police should concentrate on locking up the people who go after real children, not spend their time enticing troubled souls with salacious chatroom repartee. "The ones I've seen need counselling," he said, "but they've never engaged in that kind of conduct."

Naughton's lawyers got a chance to test their strategy on 7 December last year, when a jury of six men and six women -- including one Disney employee -- began to decide the case. By that time, the Seattle house in which Naughton and his wife once lived had been sold, and he had moved alone to an apartment in what he described as a "fringe" neighbourhood of Hollywood.

Naughton showed up on the first day of the trial in a white shirt and boxy dark suit, wearing his gold wedding band on his left ring finger. Although his wife was absent, a small group of supporters -- his brothers and a handful of close friends -- did attend the proceedings. Naughton sat stoically as the prosecution presented seven witnesses, including the FBI agents present at the arrest, Motro and other former colleagues.

During her opening statements, prosecutor Patricia Donahue told jurors that Naughton had given his real name to KrisLA, repeatedly encouraged her to meet and said he was serious about the rendezvous. "The defendant sought Kris out over and over again," Donahue said. "He said over and over this wasn't just fantasy. He said he had to be careful, because he could get in trouble for what they were doing."

Applin, who had posed as KrisLA online, was the prosecution's main witness. He said he logged on to the "dad&daughtersex" chatroom on 8 March 1999, and received a private message from Naughton. From the very first session, which lasted four hours, the two discussed meeting. Naughton suggested to Applin that "she" could skip school. KrisLA asked Naughton if he was serious. "I don't do this for fantasy," hotseattle replied.

During Applin's recounting of their chatroom conversations, Naughton followed along on a screen in front of him. Applin said that during their six virtual meetings, Naughton directed KrisLA to his Forbes profile online, told her he had a digital camera to take pictures when they met and sent the URL that led to a picture of an erect penis. (According to Applin's affidavit, the site also contained a picture of a young girl sent by another FBI undercover agent with whom Naughton had been chatting.)

Applin said KrisLA repeatedly reminded Naughton of her age and asked him if he was serious about meeting. When Donahue asked Applin why he did that, he replied: "Fantasy or role-playing is not a crime. Meeting a child for sex is."

The prosecution also put Braaten, the decoy, on the stand. Short and buxom, with honey-coloured hair and a childlike voice, Braaten certainly looked like an adult under the harsh fluorescent lights of the courtroom. But in the shadows of a carnival ride at the pier, disguised as a teen in pigtails and baggy overalls, it's not difficult to see how she could have been mistaken for someone much younger.

The most damaging moment for Naughton came when Donahue showed jurors the pictures investigators had found on his computer shortly after his arrest. They included an image of a man having intercourse with someone who resembled a preteen girl; close-ups of genitalia, including one called "babyc**t"; and a photo of a naked preteen girl hugging a naked preteen boy. Later, one of the jurors, speaking on condition of anonymity, said one of the worst parts of the deliberations was flipping past those pictures to view the other evidence contained in their binders.

See also Part IX.

See also The trial of Patrick Naughton

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