Journalista & The Beat provide an interesting link this morning to a site that includes a detailed critique of the local lawyers, including an allegation that Handley was not informed by his lawyers that he was pleading guilty to a child obscenity count that could lead to prison time. This strikes me as somewhat unlikely, given that Handley is on record as expressly pleading guilty to the child obscenity statute that has long been the central public issue in the case.
Still, there are several lessons here for retailers and readers of sexually explicit comics material.
Know your environment. Whether one likes it or not, the fact is that child obscenity cases are an easy way for prosecutors to get the sort of publicity that can help them advance in their careers. Relying on the popular belief that current law is clearly unconstitutional is a rather risky proposition. That you personally don’t believe minefields should be legal doesn’t make them any less explosive.
Know your material. If there’s a chance someone could perceive your material as containing sexually explicit images of teenagers or below, you’re potentially at risk. This is particularly true with manga, which has a robust tradition of childlike imagery.
However, the realpolitik of local juries makes even literary comics a risky proposition. For example, I could easily see a local prosecutor arguing that Alan Moore’s Lost Girls is merely a prurient perversion of childhood characters with no redeeming value. Yes, a scholar may argue against this, but the audience that counts is the jury, not the academy.
Know your case. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Handley did indeed not know the charge or the potential sentence when he copped the plea. If you, god forbid, ever find yourself in a similar position, I strongly recommend that you take a few minutes to read the documents you’re signing.
If you’re unfamiliar with a statute, look it up; if you’re not sure of the potential penalty, look that up too. If something’s not clear, ask, and if you might face jail time, consider paying for a second opinion or at least ask trying to ask the judge for clarification. It’s also wise in such situations to hold back from signing an agreement without an understanding–if at all possible, expressly stated in writing–of the sentence that the prosecutor is going to recommend.
On the flip side, it’s also useful to remember that a prosecutorial press release is designed to make the prosecutor’s side look tough on crime. A public reference to the maximum possible penalty does not mean that this is the sentence the prosecutor will request or the defendant will receive.
Again, my aim in all of this is merely to explain the situation, not to endorse it. There’s a significant gap between what many think ought to be the law and what the legal reality actually is. In the United States freedom of the press is not an absolute–if you read, sell or distribute material that could be seen as containing sexually explicit images of minors, you might want to consider how much you’re personally willing to risk.