Saturday, April 04, 2009

Fanaticism and the law: the persecution of Ting-Yi Oei

One of the great dangers of being involved in witch-hunts is that the hunter sometimes becomes the hunted. That apparently is the case of an assistant school principle who was asked to hunt down students who might be guilty of “sexting”—the use of telephone technology to send erotic photos of oneself to others.

Ting-Yi Oei was a teacher and administrator at the misnamed Freedom High School in South Riding, Virginia. Since there were rumors going about that “sexting” was rampant, he was asked to investigate. A year ago, one of the students that Oei asked about the rumors was a 16-year-old boy who said he had such an image on his cell phone—obviously the boy wasn’t that bright. But what was depicted was far from porn, and far from explicit. It showed a female torso, clad in underpants, her breasts covered by her arms. In other words, it showed less than an underwear ad on television.

The boy said he had no idea who it was or where it came from. Oei showed the suspect image to the principal, who instructed him to preserve a copy on his office computer. Oei found the technology involved too difficult to understand so the boy sent the image to Oei’s phone and then showed him how to forward to his email account. The boy then deleted this rather mundane image at Oei’s instruction. No other photos were discovered and no one could identify the female from what little was shown. As far as Oei was concerned the matter was over.

Unfortunately, the boy in question got himself in trouble when he pulled down a girl’s pants in class. He was rightfully suspended. But the boy’s mother was furious and wanted to take the school to task for treating her baby so badly. Her son told her about the image being confiscated and she figured she had the hook to get even. First, she demanded to know why Oei hadn’t reported the image to her. Perhaps that was because the image posed no problems to anyone. If every teenage boy in America, who possessed a photo of a scantily clad body, were reported to his parents the country would come to a standstill. But Mommy dearest was livid and called Oei very early one morning demanding her son be reinstated at school. Oei told her that wasn’t possible, given what the boy had done.

Mommy dearest got her revenge. She now went to the police and told them about the photo that Oei had copied, on orders of the principal. Once local police got involved they smelled a juicy story that would make them look good and useful to local taxpayers. They asked Oei for the image and he said they could have it but that he had no idea how to transfer it. So the police did the transfer and left. They claimed they were investigating the “sexting” issue.

Quickly the police filed charges—against Oei. They said he didn’t report “child abuse” and thus violated the law. They said Oei was obligated to report the photo to the girl’s parents. But, as Oei pointed out, no one knew who the girl was and thus it was impossible to do that. In addition, he said the photo did not indicate any abuse whatsoever. It was a slightly naughty photo that a girl took of herself, hardly indicative of a white slavery racket. In addition, Oei was required by law to report the incident to the principal only and he had done that. If the principal thought necessary, it was her job to report it further.

At this point, a zealot stepped in—conservative Republican and local prosecutor, James Plowman (pictured above). Plowman decided he could get some good publicity by going after Oei. And like most fanatical prosecutors with a moralistic agenda, Plowman was not unwilling to twist the law into any shape to get what he wanted. Plowman told Oei he wanted him to resign his position. When Oei refused, Plowman got a grand jury to prosecute Oei for “child pornography,” this in spite of the fact that the photo in question contained no nudity whatsoever, unless bare arms count. Of course, the man is a conservative Republican, any woman not covered by a burka is pornographic in his circles.

Plowman waited until the first day of school to have the police march in and arrest Oei in front of his staff and students. Consider how the media reported the incident at the time. Leesburg Today reported that Oei had been arrested for child porn charges and that the sheriff’s department “would not elaborate on the nature of the photo, only repeating that it was deemed ‘inappropriate.’” Oei was being prosecuted with only his defense attorney actually trying to explain that there was no pornography involved. What is even more bizarre, is that the same publication later referred to the photo as “a potentially nude photo.” Either the photo depicts nudity or not. The term “potentially nude photo” makes no sense whatsoever.

The Sheriff’s department eventually “said there was no crime depicted in the photograph, but county prosecutors [Plowman] moved ahead with the case” anyway. Oei was removed from his job, and his fellow staff members were told to avoid him. Suddenly he found himself in the middle of a frenzy accused of child porn with absolutely nothing but a relatively innocent photo confiscated from a student as proof. For the next year, he had to fight the zealotry of the Republican prosecutor who promised to be “tough” on crime. Plowman’s office, of course, had taxpayer funds to waste. Oei had to defend himself with his own money, an estimated $150,000 and one full year of his life, to be exact.

Oei was told that all his friends and family would now be investigated and that his home computers could be seized at any time, along with his phone records. He and his wife, a life-long schoolteacher herself, searched all their family photos to see if they had any photos of their children playing in the bath. Said Oei, “Heaven forbid that a parent might think it was cute for a baby to play in a bubble bath and there might be an inappropriate part showing. Luckily all of our rubber-ducky baby photos had the children covered in bath bubbles or something.”

Plowman wasn’t finished in his attack on the man. After all “child porn” gets lots of publicity for a prosecutor with a vision of himself in higher office. And one tactic to intimidate individuals is to overcharge them in the hopes of forcing them to admit guilt to something in order to avoid having to fight all the other charges as well. It’s a dirty trick, but Plowman is fighting for morality so ethics has no role in the game. Now Plowman added new charges, claiming that Oei had contributed to the delinquency of a minor. In Plowman’s little mind, when Oei had the teen transfer the photo to Oei’s phone and then to the computer that amounted to him encouraging the boy to commit a crime. Remember Plowman was still claiming the photo was child pornography every chance he got.

Members of the local Quaker community came to Oei’s aid. The local education association and the state education association lent him money for his defense. Students who had been out of touch for years reappeared and offered help.

Oei’s nightmare ended two days ago when a local judge threw out the charges. Remember the photo had no nudity in it at all. Judge Thomas Horne, who will no doubt be branded an “activist judge” by local Christianists allied with Plowman, said that the photo simply wasn’t child pornography. If the photo is not pornographic and depicts no nudity it can’t be “child porn” and thus Oei can’t be guilty of any of the charges that Plowman concocted. Plowman is unapologetic and insists that the photo was “lewd.” But, really, Plowman is a Republican conservative after all and these days “lewd” has very broad definitions in his circles. Plowman insisted the photo had to be “provocative” because the judge sealed it from public view. Of course, the reason for that could well be that the judge was protecting the girl in question and her privacy, not trying to protect the public from porn, as Plowman was desperately trying to insinuate.

The Wired article says Plowman blames Oei for the entire court case. “Plowman insists he never intended to seek prison time for Oei. He would have been satisfied with a fine, probation and Oei’s resignation. The case would never have gone this far, he says, if Oei had resigned when asked.” Clearly this man lacks all human decency. He is worried about looking good and it doesn’t look good when he prosecutes people for non-existent crimes. So he pushes the man with more charges hoping to intimidate him into pleading guilty to something just so Plowman can say that his office is exonerated by the guilty plea. And when no guilty plea is forthcoming, since no crime had been committed, Plowman then blames his victim for what Plowman did to him. Amazing.

Plowman has a female assistant prosecutor, Nicolle Wittmann, who said even more absurd things when the judge threw the case out. She said they prosecuted because: “This is the issue of possession of this photograph. There is no exception to the possession of child pornography.” Either this woman is brain-dead or a bald-faced liar. Whether there is an exception to possession of child porn. [Clearly there is. Otherwise, the prosecutor’s wouldn’t be able to possess said photos] is not the question since there was NO child porn to possess.

What is more amazing, is that Plowman and Wittmann never filed any charges against the student who possessed the photo, the girl [who was later identified] or the person who took the photo. If, as Plowman and Wittmann, so unconvincingly contend, the photo was “child porn” why were those who created and disseminated the photo free of any charges?

I sincerely doubt that even Plowman and Wittmann actually think that there was any “child porn” involved. Plowman stupidly laid charges without evidence and then tried to cover up by laying new, more serious charges, in the hopes of intimidating Oei to plead guilty to something. Plowman was trying to cover his ass. And, for the same reason, he and Wittmann are clearly lying to the public when they continue to refer to this as a “child porn” case. And Plowman knew that since he was wasting tax funds, he had no financial limitations to prevent him from continuing with the prosecution until he wore Oei down.

Nor do I doubt that Plowman has justified his behavior to himself, as despicable as it clearly has been. I imagine he sees himself as a defender of people from crime. As such, he needs to be tough. Sometimes he makes mistakes, but if he admits that he fucked up big time he could lose office. So best to plow doggedly ahead, admit no error, and blame the victim. After all, he has to think of the public. And, if the public falls for it, he might be rewarded with higher office someday. Plowman may even believe he is helping the public with his antics, but then many “law and order” types are just like him. If you want another example just look at the antics of prosecutor Andrew Thomas and his “assistant” Rachel Alexander.

For those who wish to politely suggest that Mr. Plowman resign, he may be emailed here:

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