In the eight child-porn cases that came before her court, former D.C. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson heard horrifying details of “sadomasochistic” torture of young kids — including “infants and toddlers” — yet challenged the disturbing evidence presented by prosecutors and disregarded their prison recommendations to give the lightest possible punishments in each case, according to transcripts of sentencing hearings obtained by the Post.
In some cases, she even apologized to some of the kiddie-porn perverts for having to follow the statutes, which she called “substantially flawed.”
Over and over, the records reveal, Jackson made excuses for the sex fiends’ criminal behavior and cut them slack in defiance of investigators and prosecutors — and sometimes even probation officers serving her court — who argued for tougher sentences because the cases were particularly egregious or the defendants weren’t remorseful.Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson arrives for her confirmation hearing on March 21.
The fuller record of her orders as a trial judge, detailed here for the first time, undercuts the White House’s and Senate Democrats’ argument that her sentences were within the “normal range” or “mainstream” of child porn cases, as they try to defend the Supreme Court nod against growing allegations she is soft on crime.
Jackson, 51, who tried the cases as an Obama appointee from 2013 to 2021, was nominated earlier this year by President Biden, who pledged during the campaign to put the first “black woman” on the high bench. The Senate will vote on her confirmation next week.
In July 2020, Jackson gave the bare minimum sentence to a defendant convicted of distributing images and videos of infants being sexually abused, and who had boasted of molesting his 13-year-old cousin, even though she knew the defendant refused “to take full responsibility” for his crimes, a transcript reveals. In 2018, Christopher Michael Downs was busted trading child porn in a private online chat room, “Pedos Only,” including images of adult males raping “a prepubescent female child,” according to court records. He posted 33 graphic photos, including an image of a naked female child as young as 2 years old. Downs, then 30, told the group, “I once fooled around with my 13-year-old cousin.” He also uploaded a 10-second video of “a prepubescent female lying in a bathtub and with an adult male inserting his penis into her mouth.”
Jackson herself admitted that the felon was at “risk of reoffending,” the transcript further reveals. But she declined to enhance his prison time based on the amount of porn he distributed, arguing such enhancements were “outdated” and “substantially flawed.” She acknowledged the average sentence nationally “for similarly situated defendants” was 81 months, but she gave him the statutory mandatory-minimum sentence of 60 months, which was short of the nearly six years prosecutors asked for. In addition, Jackson gave him credit for time served starting from when he was first incarcerated in October 2018, so technically she gave him only 38 months, or a little over three years, in the pen. Downs is scheduled for release in December.
In her April 2021 sentencing of child porn distributor Ryan Manning Cooper, Jackson contradicted the findings of prosecutors, dismissing the crimes they described as “on the more egregious or extreme spectrum” of child porn as not “especially egregious.” Among the more than 600 images prosecutors told the judge he traded were sexually explicit pics depicting bondage of infants and toddlers. Prosecutors also busted him with a video of a “pre-pubescent boy being penetrated anally and orally” by an older male.
“I’m really reluctant to get into the nature of the porn,” Jackson told the court before sentencing Cooper to prison time short of what the prosecution recommended.
“I don’t find persuasive the government’s arguments concerning why they think that this is a particularly egregious child pornography offense, which means I struggled to find a good reason to impose a sentence that is more severe in this case,” she argued.
Jackson cited “mitigating factors,” including letters family members sent to her describing Cooper as “kind, hard-working, dependable, loving. I have no reason to doubt those representations.” Striking a sympathetic tone, she advised the defendant: “There are going to be a lot of restrictions that the law places on you because you are a convicted sex offender, and you’re going to need the support of these people during this next phase of your life.”
In his and other cases, Jackson cited criticism of federal sentencing guidelines for child porn being “outdated” and “too severe” to justify her downward variances in prison time, arguing such “policy disagreement with the guidelines” has led her to develop “my own analysis of child pornography offenses.” However, experts point out that her objections are a circular argument, because the criticism she cited to back her rulings is the same criticism she herself wrote years earlier as President Obama’s vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
“She served as the tip of the spear in weakening federal sentencing policy for child pornographers as vice chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, where she ignored the advice of expert witnesses who disputed her theory that child pornographers are somehow not pedophiles,” said Mike Davis, president of the Article III Project, a Washington advocacy group for constitutional judges and the rule of law.
Jackson complained that current sentencing schemes don’t accurately measure the severity of child porn offenses, because computers, the Internet and digital cameras make it “so easy” to collect, store and distribute illegal porn today.
But prosecutors don’t buy it. They say the amount of computer files stored and/or traded is still an aggravating factor that should be considered in sentencing. They say the perps are not passive actors, merely receiving files haphazardly, in spite of the easier means of collecting such filth digitally. In the cases Jackson heard, prosecutors said the defendants were caught actively soliciting child porn, storing it, and sharing it, typically in chatrooms frequented by pedophiles, or posting it on Tumblr and YouTube.
Prosecutors as well as some defense attorneys also argue non-production of child porn is hardly a victimless crime. By collecting and distributing such porn on the Internet, they say defendants are re-victimizing children who were forced to commit unspeakable acts of sexual violence for their viewing pleasure, while creating demand for future sexual exploitation of children.
In her 2013 sentencing of Wesley Keith Hawkins, who was busted posting videos on YouTube of boys as young as 11 being raped by men, Jackson gave the young gay black man essentially a slap on the wrist — and then apologized to him for it. Instead of the two years of prison prosecutors asked for, she gave him just three months and sent him to a lower-security facility and even arranged special protections for his safety normally afforded cops sent to prison.
“I am not persuaded that two years in prison is necessary,” she ruled, arguing that such a sentence does not account for mitigating factors, including “Mr. Hawkin’s … future potential.” (Further explaining her decision, she disputed the severity of the evidence investigators presented and suggested the more than 600 images they caught him with “don’t signal an especially heinous or egregious child pornography offense.”)
“This is a truly difficult situation,” she told Hawkins, according to page 46 of the transcript. “I appreciate that your family is in the audience. I feel so sorry for them and for you and for the anguish that this has caused all of you.”
Jackson then expressed sorrow over even the light sentence she handed down. “I also feel terrible about the collateral consequences of this conviction,” she said, explaining that “sex offenders are truly shunned in our society, but I have no control over the collateral consequences.”
She offered that “youth and inexperience may have clouded your judgment” and dismissed concerns he was a risk to reoffend. “There’s no reason to believe you are a pedophile or that you pose any risk to children,” Jackson opined. “So It’s not necessary to incapacitate you in order to protect the public.”
Only, Hawkins proved her wrong in 2019 when his probation officer busted him continuing his child porn obsession. Jackson had to step in and essentially resentence him, this time to six months in a “residential reentry center,” according to her court filing. Asked about Hawkins’ relapse at her Senate hearing, she testified she could not recall the matter. But transcripts show that in her May 2021 sentencing of Adam Chazin, who was busted with 48 files of child porn including images of toddlers, she said “I remember Mr. Hawkin’s case well, even though it was many years ago.” Jackson cited her leniency toward Hawkins while giving Chazin just 28 months in prison (versus the 78 months prosecutors demanded).
A more serious example of recidivism involved another case Jackson heard with a compassionate ear. In 2015, Neil Alexander Stewart, 31, was caught with hundreds of child sex images and videos. He confided to an undercover officer posing as a fellow child predator that he was interested in “willing” children between the ages “5-11” and sought to meet at the D.C. zoo with the agent’s fictional 9-year-old daughter.
In one text cited by prosecutors, Stewart advised the undercover officer how to groom a child to have sexual intercourse, which they could later videotape: “The trick is starting with really small toys and gradually moving up until something is the same size. And vibration.”
In her 2017 sentencing, Jackson gave Stewart 57 months in jail — well short of the 97 months prosecutors had asked for. The judge set aside prosecutors’ warnings that Stewart was a risk for “hands-on” sexual abuse of children and posed a “continuing” threat to the community. At her Senate confirmation hearing, Jackson was asked if she was aware that Stewart had allegedly reoffended.
“Would it surprise you to learn that Mr. Stewart is a recidivist?” asked Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican. “He [has] warrants issued again for his arrest, just three years after your sentencing.”
Shrugged Jackson: “You know, Senator, there is data in the Sentencing Commission and elsewhere that indicates that there are serious recidivism issues. And so among the various people that I’ve sentenced, I’m not surprised that there are people who reoffend, and it is a terrible thing that happens in our system.”
Mike Davis, who previously served as chief counsel for nominations to former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said Jackson is an “activist judge” with extremist views.
“She’s clearly not a mainstream judge. After she heard details of sex torture of young kids, including babies, she nonetheless disregarded the official sentencing guidelines and prosecutors’ recommendations to give rock-bottom sentences in eight of eight cases,” he said, adding that she seems “more concerned about the well-being of pedophiles than the safety of your children — and thanks to her, they may be living in your neighborhood right now.”