Journalist pleads guilty to child porn trafficking But he maintains right to appeal conviction

July 07, 1998|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

After having his First Amendment defense derailed by a federal judge's ruling last week, a free-lance journalist pleaded guilty yesterday to trafficking child pornography on the Internet.

But in a strange nuance in an already-unusual case, federal prosecutors allowed Lawrence Matthews to make his plea "conditional," meaning he still has the right to appeal the conviction. Typically, defendants waive that right when they plead guilty.

Attorneys for Matthews, who claims he transmitted the sexually explicit pictures as part of an investigative story he was working on, said the guilty plea in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt represents a legal tactic paving the way for an appeal.

"By entering this conditional plea, Mr. Matthews is seeking to have further redress in front of another court," said Michael V. Statham, one of Matthews' attorneys. "He is in no way admitting that his actions were anything other than that of an investigative journalist."

Matthews, who is temporarily employed as a producer at National Public Radio, pleaded guilty in front of Judge Alexander Williams Jr. to one count of receiving child pornography and one count of sending it. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Federal prosecutors wouldn't discuss the case yesterday. But in court filings they maintain that they do not believe that Matthews was acting as a journalist when he sent and received numerous lewd photographs through America Online.

They also argue in court briefs that even if Matthews' claims are true, he still has no legal right to invoke a First Amendment defense. Freedom of speech, they wrote, does not allow journalists the right to break the law while conducting research for a story.

Matthews' trial on 15 separate child pornography charges was scheduled to begin today, and his lawyers had hoped to present a First Amendment defense. But Williams agreed with the prosecutors in a ruling last week and barred the free speech argument.

Statham said yesterday that Williams' ruling took away any chance of Matthews' fair defense. As a result, the conditional guilty plea -- and a subsequent appeal -- was regarded as the only option, he said.

An appeal cannot be filed in a criminal proceeding until the case is completed. Statham said Matthews' appeal will be filed in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond immediately after he is sentenced Dec. 11.

In 1995, Matthews did an investigative, three-part story for WTOP radio in Washington on the availability of child pornography on the Internet. But he did not have a contract or agreement with any news organization regarding the story he claimed to be working on when his home was raided by federal agents in December 1996.

Once the story was finished, Matthews said he hoped to sell it to a magazine.

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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