An Anne Arundel County woman has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against more than 180 defendants who she says circulated or watched child pornography showing her two young children being molested by their father and another person.
In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the woman is unnamed to shield the identity of the youngsters, who were ages 4 and 6 at the time they were sexually assaulted, the suit says.
The suit claims the father and another person pleaded guilty to federal charges in connection with production of child pornography and were sentenced to 45 and 36 years in prison. The two who produced the video did it "with the express purpose of gaining entry into a closed group of pedophiles who trade in images of child pornography," the suit alleges.
The suit makes claims against more than 180 defendants – some have been convicted of child pornography charges, others are facing charges, others are identified simply as "John Doe."
Steven J. Kelly, the plaintiff's attorney, said the lawsuit was filed under a federal statute that allows victims of child pornography to go after the assets of people believed to be involved in Internet communities that view and trade in child pornography.
Alleging a conspiracy — in the form of an Internet community involved in viewing and circulating child pornography — the seven-count lawsuit seeks $8 million in compensatory damages and $24 million of punitive damages. Video and other images were packaged and circulated online under two pornographic series names, DKNY and YKND, according to the suit.
"The idea is partially to use civil law to deter people from creating a market for this stuff," Kelly said. "What we are trying to do is go after the entire class of these guys to try to shut it down, using civil law and monetary damages."
He said that the federal measure known as "Masha's law" provides for civil penalties of no less than $150,000 a violation. The law was part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, initially passed in 2006 and updated in 2009.
Kelly said other suits against individuals or groups of people have been filed elsewhere under the federal provision, but the Anne Arundel suit may have the largest number of defendants.
"We don't know of any other action on this scale that has been brought," he said.
University of Utah law professor Paul G. Cassell, a former federal judge and former federal prosecutor, said this lawsuit "adds an extra element" beyond federal restitution in criminal prosecutions.
"Maybe hitting them in the pocketbook will be a way of sending them a further message that child pornography is not something to be taken lightly," he said.
Currently pending at the U.S. Supreme Court is Cassell's petition in a restitution case stemming from online child pornography. At issue is whether a single criminal defendant can be held financially liable for all harm caused to a child or whether the amount should be divided up with other defendants in other prosecutions who viewed the same pornography. The issue has divided courts.