Child porn suspects set to be cleared in evidence ‘shambles’
DOZENS of men accused of downloading child pornography from the internet may have been wrongly prosecuted, according to expert prosecution and defence witnesses.
New evidence suggests that Operation Ore, Britain’s biggest child pornography investigation, may have prosecuted innocent men on the basis of discredited American police testimony and questionable forensic methods.
Jim Bates, a computer expert who has served as a witness for the prosecution or the defence in more than 100 child porn cases, says many Ore cases are now likely to collapse or be overturned in the Court of Appeal. “It has been a shambles from the word go,” he said.
The nationwide police investigation was launched three years ago after a list of 7,200 British suspects was supplied to British police by American authorities.
The men on the list stand accused of having used their credit cards to pay for child porn through Landslide, a sex website that operated in Texas from 1996-9.
The accusations have led to 33 suicides, most recently that of Commodore David White, the commander of British forces in Gibraltar. He was found dead in his swimming pool on January 8.
Bates believes records of credit card transactions on the site are unreliable and therefore the names of alleged subscribers cannot be used as evidence.
Thomas Reedy, the man who set up the website, was investigated by the FBI in the 1990s for credit card fraud. “I am convinced that a massive fraud has been perpetrated at Landslide and an unknown number of subscriptions are fake,” said Bates.
He cites the case of Dr Paul Grout, a senior accident specialist at Hull Royal Infirmary, who was falsely accused of accessing child porn. Grout, who was praised for his help at the 2001 Selby rail crash, lost his £70,000-a-year job because of the allegations. Many of his friends “drifted off” and he and his wife Susie endured huge strains on their marriage.
It was not until his case came to Hull crown court in April last year that the Yorkshire doctor was able to prove his innocence. His lawyers showed that, while Grout had used his credit card to pay for a meal in a restaurant in Yorkshire, someone else had been using it 5,000 miles away in Lake Tahoe, America.
In a case that legal experts believe may prove a landmark judgment, Judge David Bentley threw out the prosecution argument. In his judgment, Bentley dismissed some police evidence as “utter nonsense”. He said the way the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had held back some information vital to Grout’s defence had “stunk of unfairness”.
Another computer user wrongly accused of downloading child pornography was Robert Del Naja, frontman of the group Massive Attack. His arrest in February 2003 was leaked to the media but the case against him was dropped less than a month later.
One police officer, Peter Johnston, became so disillusioned at what he described as the Ore “witch-hunt” that he resigned from his job with Merseyside police.
In a letter to The Sunday Times, Johnston said: “I began to doubt the validity of the evidence surrounding the circumstances of the initial investigation in America . . . I found it difficult to rationalise how offenders had been identified solely on a credit card number.”
Bates believes that evidence, highlighted by Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist and an expert witness in some Ore cases, could lead to many cases being dropped.
In an article in last week’s Sunday Times, Campbell revealed that sworn statements provided in British courts by two American detectives who initiated Operation Ore could no longer be relied upon.
The two, Dallas detective Steve Nelson and US postal inspector Michael Mead, had claimed that everyone who went to Landslide always did so through a front-page screen button saying “Click Here (for) Child Porn”.
But Campbell has established that the button was never on the website’s front page. Instead it was on an advertisement for another website buried deep in the Landslide website.
That discovery has effectively removed a key plank of many of the Ore prosecutions where no actual child porn was found.
Those prosecutions were based on the assertion that evidence that someone had paid to access Landslide automatically meant that they had paid to access child porn.
Steve Barker, a solicitor who acts for one Operation Ore suspect in a High Court appeal, said that in many prosecutions police were unable to disprove defendants had simply accessed legal adult porn rather than paedophile material. In other cases, child porn might have been accessed accidentally by those looking for adult porn.
The CPS has also disclosed that an internal inquiry has raised serious questions over the evidence provided by Brian Underhill, a key police witness in some 600 Ore cases. The CPS said it would now disclose the doubts raised by its inquiry to defence solicitors before future trials began.
The CPS last week defended its role in the hundreds of successful cases in which defendants had pleaded guilty. A spokeswoman said: “Each case was considered on its own merits and the evidence provided by police has been subject to thorough scrutiny.”
Operation Ore is the UK's biggest ever IT crime investigation, but expert witness Duncan Campbell reveals that many prosecutions were founded on falsehoods
They arrive without warning at six in the morning. Drowsily rising, Adam Smith finds two polite, suited men. 'Police. May we come in?'
The scene starts to shift. 'I am arresting you on suspicion of possessing and distributing child pornography. We have a search warrant.' Behind their backs, Smith sees a flurry of others moving in. They are firm but not aggressive - they know they are dealing with a middle-class, educated professional with no criminal history.
A female officer corners his wife and asks her if she knew her husband was a paedophile. Would she please make up an excuse for the kids not going to school today? A family social worker will be coming over to interview them - in case her husband has been abusing his own children.
Politeness is maintained at the police station. Booked in, interviewed. They ask him to confirm his credit card number and the email addresses he used in 1999. They show him a copy of a credit card bill they have already got from his bank. They point to a payment to Landslide Productions. 'You paid for child pornography; that's what that is.' He says 'no' and that he's never heard of that company.
The facts they put so confidently seem to fit, except that Smith has never had any interest in children other than being a good dad.
In one day, for no cause he can understand, Smith has become a pariah, one of the most hated, baited people in the country, a suspected child-molesting paedophile. In the months ahead, it will only get worse.
Even if his computer is eventually found
to contain nothing more sexually unusual than the proportions of Samantha Fox, he faces months of fearing trial, stigma and possible jail, accused merely of 'inciting' the sale of child porn, based solely on computer data found years ago in a Texas office block.
Operation Ore launched on British TV screens on 20 May 2002. The BBC led on 'mass arrests over online child porn'. Thirty-six people were arrested, with promises of thousands more to follow. It made for compelling television, and provoked a rash of tabloid activity, but it also led to increased pressure on the police to bring the remaining thousands to justice.
Unfortunately, not all the evidence presented was quite as clear cut as it seemed. Clearly visible on the bulletin was a computer screen displaying Exhibit One of Operation Ore. In the middle of the screen were the words 'Click Here CHILD PORN'.
According to witness statements sworn by the US detective Steven Nelson and US Postal Inspector Michael Mead, this was the front page of Landslide Productions Inc, a company at the centre of child porn allegations. To go further, they testified, those prosecuted must have clicked on 'Enter'. They would then be taken to a page that proclaimed itself as 'the most controversial site on the Web ... no legal content ... phedophilias [sic]... all sick, all sex maniacs'. Click on and they would be taken to 'Lolita World', and from there, said Nelson, to a host of child porn websites offered by Keyz, a separate service offered by Landslide.
The Metropolitan Police Paedophile Unit let the BBC cameras in on the planning process for Operation Ore raids for a series shown a year ago: 'Police Protecting Children'. At the start of the show was a PowerPoint briefing for the raiding teams. Slide 1 showed the 'Click here' banner, with the legend 'First they are into an adult site. And choose to go to a child site'.
To British police and prosecutors, this was killer evidence. It meant everyone who had been to Landslide had knowingly chosen to access child porn. It meant that everyone who had subscribed to the site must automatically be guilty.