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Prosecutors Dropping Child Porn Charges After Software Tools Are Questioned

[propublica.org – 4/3/19]

 

Using specialized software, investigators traced explicit child pornography to Todd Hartman’s internet address. A dozen police officers raided his Los Angeles-area apartment, seized his computer and arrested him for files including a video of a man ejaculating on a 7-year-old girl. But after his lawyer contended that the software tool inappropriately accessed Hartman’s private files, and asked to examine how it worked, prosecutors dismissed the case.

Near Phoenix, police with a similar detection program tracked underage porn photos, including a 4-year-old with her legs spread, to Tom Tolworthy’s home computer. He was indicted in state court on 10 counts of committing a “dangerous crime against children,” each of which carried a decade in prison if convicted. Yet when investigators checked Tolworthy’s hard drive, the images weren’t there. Even though investigators said different offensive files surfaced on another computer that he owned, the case was tossed.

At a time when at least half a million laptops, tablets, phones and other devices are viewing or sharing child pornography on the internet every month, software that tracks images to specific internet connections has become a vital tool for prosecutors. Increasingly, though, it’s backfiring.

Drawing upon thousands of pages of court filings as well as interviews with lawyers and experts, ProPublica found more than a dozen cases since 2011 that were dismissed either because of challenges to the software’s findings, or the refusal by the government or the maker to share the computer programs with defense attorneys, or both. Tami Loehrs, a forensics expert who often testifies in child pornography cases, said she is aware of more than 60 cases in which the defense strategy has focused on the software.

Defense attorneys have long complained that the government’s secrecy claims may hamstring suspects seeking to prove that the software wrongly identified them. But the growing success of their counterattack is also raising concerns that, by questioning the software used by investigators, some who trade in child pornography can avoid punishment.

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