Christopher Handley of Iowa, a "prolific collector" of manga, pleaded guilty last week to mailing obscene matter, and to "possession of obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children." Three other counts were dropped in a plea deal with prosecutors.
The government's press release states, "Handley faces a maximum of 15 years in prison, a maximum fine of $250,000, and a three-year term of supervised release." Additionally, he forfeits all property seized in his prosecution including his computer.
Handley's guilty plea makes him the first to be convicted under that law for possessing cartoon art, without any evidence that he also collected or viewed genuine child pornography.
According to court documents, in May 2006, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) intercepted a mail package coming into the United States from Japan that was addressed to Handley. Inside the package was obscene material, including books containing visual representations of the sexual abuse of children, specifically Japanese manga
drawings of minor females being sexually abused by adult males and animals. Pursuant to a search warrant, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) searched and seized additional obscene drawings of the sexual abuse of children at Handley's residence in Glenwood. Handley was indicted by a grand jury sitting in the Southern District of Iowa in May 2007.
The 39-year-old office worker was charged under the 2003 Protect Act, which outlaws cartoons, drawings, sculptures or paintings depicting minors engaging in sexually explicit conduct, and which lack "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."
Congress passed the Protect Act after the Supreme Court struck down a broader law prohibiting any visual depictions of minors engaged in sexual activity, including computer-generated imagery and other fakes. The high court ruled that the ban was overbroad, and could cover legitimate speech, including Hollywood productions.
In response, the Protect Act narrows the prohibition to cover only depictions that the defendant's community would consider "obscene."
"It's probably the only law I'm aware of, if a client shows me a book or magazine or movie, and asks me if this image is illegal, I can't tell them," says Eric Chase, Handley's attorney.
Chase says he recommended the plea agreement to his client because he didn't think he could convince a jury to acquit him once they'd seen the images in question. The lawyer declined to describe the details. "If they can imagine it, they drew it," he says. "Use your imagination. It was there."
Frenchy Lunning, a manga expert at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, was a consultant in the case. She says the books were from the widely available Lolicon
variety — a Japanese word play on "Lolita."
"This stuff is huge in Japan, in all of Asia," Lunning says. Handley, she adds, "is not a pedophile. He had no photographs of child pornography."
Handley remains free pending a yet-to-be scheduled sentencing date. Mike Bladel, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Iowa, declined to state what kind of sentence the government would seek, but claimed there were hundreds of obscene panels in the seized manga.
A sentencing status conference where Handley may learn the term of his sentence is currently scheduled for August 18th.
Chase says he's hoping the judge will take into account the circumstances.
"He was a prolific collector," says the lawyer. "He did not focus on this type of manga. He collected everything that was out there that he could get his hands on. I think this makes a huge difference.
Comics fans are alarmed by the case, saying that jailing someone over manga does nothing to protect children from sexual abuse.
"This art that this man possessed as part of a larger collection of manga ... is now the basis for [a sentence] designed to protect children from abuse," says Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. "The drawings are not obscene and are not tantamount to pornography. They are lines on paper."
The CBLDF became special consultant to Mr. Handley's defense team last October. In this limited role, the Fund facilitated access to First Amendment experts; recommended expert witnesses on manga; and funded expert research pursuant to an eventual jury trial. The CBLDF spent $2,400 on that research, and had allocated up to $15,000 for expert witness expenses.
In a statement, the fund said: "Naturally, we are very disappointed by this result, but understand that in a criminal case, every defendant must make the decision that they believe serves their best interest," CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein said. "Because the set of facts specific to this case were so unique, we hope that its importance as precedent will be minimal. However, we must also continue to be prepared for the possibility that other cases could arise in the future as a result."
Brownstein adds, "Mr. Handley now faces the loss of his freedom and his property, all for owning a handful of comic books. It's chilling. The Fund remains unwavering in our commitment to be prepared to manage future threats of this nature wherever they arise. This is the unfortunate conclusion of Mr. Handley's case, but it is not the end of this sort of prosecution. For that reason, the Fund stands steadfast in our commitment to defending the First Amendment rights of the comics art form."