Judicial Notebook

In January 2009, Doyle Randall Paroline pleaded guilty to knowingly possessing a computer cache of 150 to 300 pornographic images of children. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children identified a woman named "Amy," now an adult, as the minor depicted in two of the images. At age 8 or 9, Amy had been abused by her uncle (unnamed), who took explicit photos of her that he then distributed electronically. Those images of Amy went viral on the Internet and are among the most widely distributed set of child pornography images in the world. Not only did Amy suffer harm as a result of her uncle's abuse, she also suffered the consequences of the widespread distribution and availability of those images.

As allowed by federal law (18 U.S.C. § 2259), Amy filed suit to recover her lost income, the cost of years of therapy and legal fees — totaling around $3.4 million — as victim restitution from Paroline, one person who was convicted of possession of the images. While Amy was clearly entitled to restitution for damages she suffered, the question for the Texas federal court hearing her petition for restitution was who should be responsible for Amy's restitution when thousands of people — many of them unknown — viewed the images of her being raped by her uncle, thereby collectively causing her emotional and financial damage?

The trial court from which Amy initially sought an order of restitution did not question that she "undoubtedly experienced and will continue to experience [harm] for the rest of her life," as a result of the pictures. But it found that, as a matter of law, she could only recover from Paroline the proportion of her damages that were proximately caused by his possession of the two images of her in 2009 (U.S. v. Paroline, 2009). Although the 5th Circuit concluded Paroline could be ordered to pay the total damages as jointly and severally liable to Amy with all others who had participated in causing her damages (U.S. v. Unknown, 2012) placing the burden to identify and collect from those individuals who were jointly liable to Amy on Paroline, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in April 2014 that Paroline was only responsible for the damages caused by his possession of the two images of Amy in 2009 (Paroline v. U.S., 2014). As a result of this decision, any victim seeking restitution must prove what portion of her damages — including medical and psychological damage — results from each individual defendant who caused her harm.

Today, explicit images and video can be created, with or without the knowledge and consent of the subject, by anyone with a smartphone. Once created, the images can be distributed to thousands of Internet users within seconds. Because child pornography is so covert, detailed information about the number of images in circulation, number of victims and number of viewers is lacking. Like Amy, who first learned of the distribution of these images when she was 17 and received a crime-victim notice from the Justice Department, child pornography victims may not even know they are victims until long after the images have been in circulation.

Researchers and clinicians know very little about the psychological impact of this type of delayed awareness, the potential impact of repeated pursuit of restitution from multiple offenders, and the long-term effects of post hoc discovery of sexual abuse (in the case of unsuspecting subjects of pornography). Because the Supreme Court remanded Amy's case to the trial court for further proceedings, it is likely that restitution issues will continue to come up in trial and appellate courts. As they do, it is imperative that both courts and psychologists identify ways to prevent further harm to victims of crime who seek restitution in criminal proceedings.

"Judicial Notebook" is a project of APA's Div. 9 (Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues).