Jury finds man guilty in teen-sex sting case

`Net fantasy' defense fails to sway second trial's panel

March 24, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A former Navy physicist standing trial for the second time on charges that he used the Internet to try to seduce a teen-age girl was convicted yesterday after a federal jury in Baltimore rejected the defendant's claim that he was engaged merely in an online sexual fantasy.

Jurors also found George Paul Chambers, 46, guilty of possessing child pornography.

Chambers originally stood trial in December 2002, becoming the first defendant in Maryland's federal courts to contest such charges with the argument that he was only role-playing when he exchanged sexually graphic e-mails and photographs with an undercover FBI agent who assumed the online identity of a 13-year-old cheerleader.

The first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked, a rare setback for the FBI's $10 million Innocent Images program, which works to track and thwart online child predators. Jurors in Chambers' second trial, heard before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, deliberated less than six hours before reaching a guilty verdict.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ari S. Casper told jurors in his closing arguments to reject Chambers' fantasy claims, saying the game ended when the defendant went to a prearranged meeting with a person he believed was a minor.

"If you fantasize about going to Ocean City, Maryland, it's a fantasy," Casper said. "When you get in your car and drive there, it's reality."

Chambers, a former Navy weapons designer from La Plata in Charles County and the father of two young daughters, could be sentenced to as many as 20 years; a hearing is scheduled June 8. His attorney, Bryan A. Levitt of Towson, said the verdict was a disappointment.

"I think there certainly will be an appeal," Levitt said outside court. "I think there were certainly issues in the case that will amount to reversible error."

Chambers was arrested in June 2002 at The Mall in Columbia, where he had arranged through a series of online chats to meet the person he knew only by a screen name of "Emmygurl" and who had claimed to be a 13-year-old cheerleader. FBI agents trailed Chambers as he drove about 50 miles from his office at the Naval Surface Weapon Center in Indian Head to the Howard County mall.

As he did in his first trial, Chambers maintained in his defense over the past week's trial that he didn't really think he was talking to an underage girl in the America Online chat room called "I Love Older Men." He said he went to the mall only out of curiosity and not to have sex with a minor.

Chambers also sought to deflect the possession of child pornography charge against him by suggesting photographic evidence was mishandled while the case was headed by Jonathan P. Luna, the Baltimore federal prosecutor whose high-profile stabbing death in December remains unsolved.

The jury hearing Chambers' case in U.S. District Court in Baltimore over the past week never heard Luna mentioned by name as the original prosecutor, however, and Casper countered that every exhibit had been maintained in "pristine form."

Casper accused the defense of creating smokescreens.

"Use your common sense when you deliberate; ask yourself, `Who is to be believed?'" Casper told jurors. "The question in this case is: Where does the fantasy end and the reality begin?"

Levitt argued in court that what the government portrayed as a crime was instead the depraved fantasy life of a socially awkward, sexually inexperienced middle-aged man.

"In this case, there is no evidence that fantasy ever crossed over the line into reality; the only ones who think it crossed over into reality are the thought police," he said.

The FBI sting that led to Chambers' arrest was nothing new in the world of online policing. But Chambers' decisions to take the case to trial and to present the fantasy defense, were unusual.

In federal courts across the country, such cases almost always result in guilty pleas without further appeals because investigators can produce word-for-word transcripts of each online conversation - exchanges that typically are so graphic and embarrassing that few defendants are willing to have them read aloud to a jury.

There have been some successful challenges in Maryland's state courts. A year ago, a former Dundalk minister accused of using the Internet to arrange a sexual liaison with a 13-year-old girl was acquitted after a Howard County judge hearing the case in state court said she could not rule out the possibility that defendant Jonathan N. Gerstner believed he was talking to a consenting adult acting out a fantasy.

In the Chambers case, Levitt attempted to convince a federal jury of the same, saying: "It's no more proof that the words in those chats are true than that the words in a Stephen King novel are true - it's just words."

But Casper said the online exchanges offered a rare glimpse inside the defendant's mind.

"The chats tell the story in this case, and the chats don't lie," Casper said.

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