Debeir to get longer sentence

Appeals court rules penalty in Net sex case was too lenient

July 31, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A federal appeals court has ruled that a lower court "abused its discretion" in sentencing a former Belgian consulate official to six months' home detention in an Internet sex case in Baltimore, rather than the 12- to 18-month sentence called for under federal guidelines.

In a unanimous decision in an appeal brought by federal prosecutors who thought the sentence was too lenient, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said Georges Debeir would have to be resentenced in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on his conviction of crossing state lines to have sex with a minor female.

Debeir had been arrested in June 1998 as part of an undercover FBI operation called "Innocent Images" in which agents posed as children in Internet chat rooms to try to identify people seeking to have sex with youths. It also targeted those distributing child pornography.

Debeir had come from New York to the Gallery at Harborplace in June 1998 to meet and have sex with someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl named Kathy, records say. Instead, he was welcomed by an FBI agent.

The appeals court decision, dated Thursday, represents a significant victory for the office of the U.S. attorney in Baltimore, which had said the case underscored the need for judges to take seriously convictions stemming from undercover stings.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said last night that he had not seen the decision and could not discuss it.

James Wyda, a federal public defender and one of Debeir's attorneys, said, "We're certainly disappointed with the result."

Wyda said he could not comment further until he had read the opinion.

Beth M. Farber, another federal public defender, had argued at Debeir's sentencing in November that the former employee of the Belgian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York was acting out a "fantasy" over the Internet and had no intention of engaging in sex with a minor.

Original sentence

U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson, who also sentenced Debeir to five years' probation, noted the "victimless" nature of the crime at the time of the sentencing because "Kathy" was an FBI agent.

In its opinion, the appeals court said Nickerson erred in using that reasoning to give Debeir a reduced sentence.

"We find nothing unusual about the fact that the intended victim of Debeir's actions was a federal agent," the appeals court said in an opinion written by 4th Circuit Judge Diana G. Motz. "Indeed, such covert or `sting' operations are not uncommon.

"Furthermore, the statute that Debeir violated and to which the [sentencing] guideline applies punished traveling interstate with the intent to engage in a sexual act with a minor.

"Thus the relevant concern is Debeir's intent rather than the true age or identity of his intended victim."

The appeals court also found that other factors considered by Nickerson -- including that Debeir had gone through counseling and was not a chronic offender -- were not enough to warrant a lower sentence than that recommended by the federal guidelines.

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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