The Comics Journal provides a valuable inside look at the reason behind Christopher Handley’s guilty plea in the controversial manga obscenity case, straight from Eric Chase, Handley’s own oft-but-unjustly criticized attorney.
In his must-read reflection, Chase underscores a couple of points previously made here–the risk calculus in facing a local jury and the pervasive misunderstanding of the Ashcroft child porn case within the comics community. I strongly recommend that folks interested in the Handley case read Chase’s explanation, if not my own lengthier explanations of the law, to see how ideals of free speech play out in the rough and tumble of arrest and trial–particularly if you are a reader or retailer of sexually explicit manga.
Beyond the Chase article, I want to add my own brief reflection on the significance of the Handley sentencing. While I understand the round condemnation Handley’s six-month sentence and probation has received, the fact is the U.S. Attorney could have recommended–and the U.S. Probation Office did indeed recommend–a far more harsh punishment under the plea.
In addition to recommending a relatively light sentence (coupled with a token $200 punitive fine), the U.S. Attorney’s sentencing brief went out of its way to underscore the uniqueness of the Handley case, most notably with the Chandleresque opening, “This is an unusual case, involving an unusual man.” Equally noteworthy is the fact that the sentencing brief went out of its way to distinguish Handley’s manga from such works as Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, which the prosecution expressly linked with Nabakov’s Lolita as a non-obscene literary work with “arguable scientific, literary, artistic, or political value.”
That the the U.S. Attorney’s office shifted so dramatically from breathless condemnation to careful caveats may very well reflect a signficant shift within the Justice Department office itself. The Handley prosecution and plea were conducted by a Bush appointee. Handley’s sentencing, however, was overseen by a different prosecutor–Nicholas Klinefeldt, President Obama’s appointee as the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.
The aggressive use of child porn prosecutions to curb all forms of sexually explicit material was a priority for the Department of Justice under President Bush. Now, as Obama appointees replace the old guard, we may be seeing the previous administration’s evangelical zeal replaced with a more nuanced approach. Simply dismissing existing cases and guilty pleas would be political suicide–clear fodder for opponents to accuse the Administration of condoning child porn–but the Handley sentencing could be a sign that the Obama administration is subtly scaling back the government’s anti-obscenity offensive.