Maine prosecutor says teens must learn dangers of ‘sexting’

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BANGOR, Maine — The day after District Attorney R. Christopher Almy announced a Piscataquis Community High School senior had been charged with two felonies after allegedly sharing a pornographic video of an underage schoolmate, he reiterated that “sexting” can lead to serious penalties in Maine, even for teenagers.

A conviction for having or sharing sexual images of juveniles or sexual exploitation of a minor can mean a lifetime on the Maine Sex Offender Registry, which could severely damage a young adult’s future, Almy warned. Younger teens who commit such acts face penalties in the juvenile justice system.

“They don’t understand the long-term consequences,” Almy said at a news conference Tuesday at his Bangor office, addressing the dangers of teens sexting, which is the sharing of nude images by cellphone or other electronic device or posting them to the Internet.

“The law says in a straightforward fashion that if you [are 18 and] solicit and receive [pornographic images of minors] and share them, you’re going to spend five years in jail” and must register with the sex offender registry, Almy said. “We have to get the word out to kids” so they stop the practice, which officials say has become more common with the increased availability of cellphones.

Keenan Larry of Abbot turned 18 in February. A month later, he allegedly solicited and received the pornographic video from a 13-year-old girl and showed it to “at least half a dozen, maybe more” students in the school’s lunchroom, Almy said. Larry also sent the video by text to another student, according to Almy.

“I don’t really think the young fellow realized the legal consequences,” Almy said after Larry was charged with three child pornography crimes related to the video, including two felonies.

Larry, who was suspended from the Guilford school during the investigation, was arrested Monday by an officer with the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office and charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor, felony dissemination of sexually explicit material and misdemeanor possession of sexually explicit materials, Almy said.

Larry spent the night at the Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft and was released on $1,000 cash bail Tuesday morning, Almy said.

Larry’s first appearance in court is scheduled for May 4.

Almy, the district attorney for both Piscataquis and Penobscot counties, emphasized the seriousness of the charges against Larry, noting he “enticed or persuaded a 13-year-old girl to send him a video of herself engaging in sexually explicit behavior.”

“When you get an underage person — a person under age 18 — to engage in this conduct … that is a significant crime,” he added later.

If convicted of Class B sexual exploitation of a minor, Larry will be required to file as lifetime registrant on the Maine Sex Offender Registry; if convicted of Class C dissemination of sexually explicit materials, he would have to register for 25 years; if convicted of Class D possession of sexually explicit materials, he’ll have to register for 10 years, Almy said in an email.

Although Larry is considered an adult under the law, youth prosecutors are dealing with a growing number of sexting cases involving juveniles, Almy said. He was unable to provide specific numbers of such cases.

Unlike some states, Maine law does not shield juveniles who possess child pornography, but those charged face the more lenient juvenile justice system. Juveniles can face time in one of the state’s two juvenile facilities, fines, community service or probation until they reach the age of 21 for committing such offenses in Maine. Only juveniles who commit gross sexual assault, a Class A crime, must register as sex offenders, according to the district attorney’s office.

A total of 20 states have teen sexting laws on the books designed to reduce the significance of crimes for those 17 and under who would otherwise face child pornography charges. Penalties range from offering an informal education diversion program to felony punishments for teen lawbreakers. Another 15 states have rules about revenge sexting, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center website.

Even if Maine had teen shield laws for sexting, Larry still would face charges because he is an adult who had pornographic images of a minor on his phone, Almy said.

Larry is accused of soliciting the video and then disseminating it to other students, which is why he is facing the Class B sexual exploitation of a minor charge, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000, if convicted, Almy said.

Sexting is legal for consenting adults. However, those who possess or distribute nude images of minors in Maine are breaking the law, no matter how old they are.

The reason for the severity of the law is because “monsters that run child pornography video sites” seek out such videos and photos, Almy said.

“If [pornographers] post it, it’s all over the world — from China to Guilford,” the district attorney said.

There is no evidence that the video went beyond Larry and a 17-year-old female student he sent it to, but since it was sent through an email server, “who knows where that video will go,” Almy said.

The 13-year-old girl told police investigators that she used her school-issued iPad to make the video and send it to Larry, after he made repeated requests, the probable cause affidavit written by Officer David Wilson of the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office states.

“I asked [name removed] why she finally made and sent the video, and she stated, ‘I finally got annoyed and said fine,’” Wilson states.

“She stated that [Larry] had told her that he would delete it,” the officer wrote later.

The video was made on March 16 and by the next day Larry was showing it to other students, according to the affidavit. He was reportedly caught in the high school’s lunchroom by principal John Keane, who confiscated Larry’s cellphone and called the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office. Keane also found the 13-year-old to let her know about the video.

The Maine State Police computer crimes unit investigation found pornographic images of the girl on electronic devices of at least three fellow students: Larry, the 17-year-old friend to whom Larry forwarded the video, and a third person, a 16-year-old boy, who received nude photos directly from the girl. The 17-year-old and the 16-year-old are not being charged, Almy said.

The girl in the video is not facing charges because she is a minor and too young to understand the consequences of her actions, Almy said.

“It’s easy to get tricked into it” when young and immature, the district attorney said.

“The way we look at a 13-year-old girl is: She’s a victim,” Almy said.

Sgt. Laurie Northrup of the Maine computer crimes unit said Monday that the problem “is huge” in Maine, and that she handles half a dozen sexting calls weekly, mostly from young women and girls, some as young as 10. When girls or boys send and receive nude images or videos electronically, “in all honesty, they’re producing child pornography,” she said.

Cara Courchesne of the Maine Coalition to End Sexual Assault said recent research shows that about 20 percent of teens have been involved in sexting.

“Sexting is yet another aspect of sexuality that just has a shiny new vehicle,” Courchesne said in an email. “If we see sexting as teenage behavior with — like all teenage behavior — mistakes and consequences instead of an epidemic of epic and uncontrollable proportions, it’s quite manageable.

“We have to tell all youth that if they receive a sext message, especially one with an explicit image, that they should not continue to forward it along,” she said later. “We have to tell all youth that coercing their peers for photos and videos can lead to consequences for both the sender and recipient. We must give youth the tools to set boundaries and make healthy decisions as opposed to hoping we can scare them into abandoning the behavior altogether.”

York resident Jayne Hitchcock, a cyberbullying and cybercrime expert who started Working to Halt Online Abuse, said children today are unaware of the state’s laws.

“These kids have no clue this is child pornography, and unfortunately, this kid [Larry] learned the hard way,” Hitchcock said. “Now, he’s looking at possibly having to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.”

What Hitchcock has learned as a cyber researcher is that pornographic images are rarely deleted, echoing statements made by Almy and Northrup.

“It’s going to get shared, and that could get them into a lot of trouble,” Hitchcock said.

Some children have told her that they have opened nude images of minors but have not shared them, and Hitchcock has to tell them, “If it’s still on your phone, it’s child pornography.”

The biggest thing Almy wants to stress is that sexting can have “future, long-term effects” on a person, both the sender and the receiver.

“Our goal is not to punish minors,” Almy said. “It’s to educate them and to let their parents know the dangers of this.”

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