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Archive for May 21st, 2008

Remember Karen Fletcher? The woman in the centre of the high-profile obscenity case I wrote about earlier? The reclusive lady who wrote violent sexual stories involving children in an attempt to cope with her own history of child abuse and was subsequently hounded by federal prosecuters? Well, the matter’s come to an end.

She battled the federal government’s allegations for more than a year and a half, but in the end, Karen Fletcher’s mental health will win out over her principles. And First Amendment lawyers will lose a key chance to have a court determine whether text-only material can be considered obscene.

Ms. Fletcher has decided to plead guilty to six counts of distributing obscenity online stemming from fictional stories published on a members-only Web site.

First Amendment lawyers thought an acquittal in the case could have begun a trend — proving that text-only cases do not rise to the level of obscenity standards.

The Donora woman was charged in September 2006 based on her “Red Rose” Web site, where Ms. Fletcher, 56, and others posted fictional stories that depicted the rape and torture of children — including infants.

She and her high-profile First Amendment lawyers claimed that what she’d written was not obscene, and they hoped to prevail before a jury.

In their favor, they thought, was the fact that the federal government has never won a conviction based solely on text under current obscenity law.

But Ms. Fletcher, who has agoraphobia — a fear of public places — is not capable of sitting through what likely would be a weeklong trial, said one of her attorneys, Lawrence Walters.

“With a different client, with somebody who had the strength to fight, there might have been a different outcome,” Mr. Walters said. “While we’d like her to be a standard-bearer on First Amendment issues, this is not the person to endure a trial.

“Even worse, should she be convicted, I don’t know that she’d be able to withstand a jail sentence.”

Under the proposed plea agreement, Ms. Fletcher would avoid prison and be sentenced to a term of home detention.

When I wrote about this matter several months ago, I noted that this case would a key test for the greatest American law of all — the first amendment. I ended that post with the words:

It is possible that Karen Fletcher will not be convicted. If she is, God save us all.

I don’t blame Karen Fletcher for the decision she has taken. A trial is a painful affair and I cannot even imagine how traumatic it may be to some one who suffers from agoraphobia, as Fletcher does. Nevertheless, today feels like an anti-climax. A defeat would have been catastrophic, signalling the slow destruction of something precious and irreplaceable; a victory would have reaffirmed the protection enjoyed by free speech in this country. This, being neither, leaves things in the balance, for another day, another case, another hero.

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