25-year sentence in child-porn case involving daughter

Posted: August 23, 2013

A federal judge sentenced a Quakertown woman on Wednesday to 25 years in prison for producing child pornography. It wasn't the crime that shocked the judge as much as the circumstances: Month after month in 2010, the woman took sexually explicit photos and videos of her own 7-year-old daughter. She then texted or e-mailed the images to her boyfriend in South Jersey, who transmitted them halfway around the world.

After a somber, 90-minute hearing in Philadelphia, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg rejected pleas for leniency from the 35-year-old woman's relatives and lawyers, and imposed a term longer than prosecutors had sought: 20 to 24 years.

"I can't ignore the overwhelmingly despicable violation of trust that occurred here," Goldberg said, "where a mother facilitated a situation which allowed a child predator to ruin the life of a 7-year-old."

The Inquirer is withholding the mother's name because to publish it would also identify the girl, now 10. The judge was also concerned: He said he would order that the evidence be sealed and that the girl's name be redacted from all hearing transcripts.

Nevertheless, all sides agreed that protecting such a victim's privacy could be a lost cause in a time when anyone with a smartphone and Internet access could publish photos worldwide.

Agents from Homeland Security Investigations discovered the crime after Australian police arrested a man there with photos of the girl. The images led them to the mother's boyfriend, Patrick Mergen of Sewell. This year, Goldberg sentenced Mergen to an identical 25-year term in the case.

But how to handle the mother was a question with which the lawyers and the judge openly struggled.

Seldom are women prosecuted as purveyors of child pornography, and rarer is a mother the defendant.

The woman's lawyer, William J. Brennan, who has spent decades in the criminal justice system, told the judge that the case was indefensible and called it "an ugly crime."

Of 231 defendants sentenced under the same charge in 2011, only 13 were women, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Levy.

He said agents discovered that the woman had taken thousands of photos and videos of her child. Some were explicitly pornographic, others showed the girl in sexually suggestive outfits and poses, sometimes with her mother or Mergen.

In a memo to the judge, Levy noted that the images may "last longer than the child will live."

The girl's name and face have since been passed to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is required to notify her if the images are ever found online or elsewhere.

The girl, an only child, did not attend the sentencing, but two dozen relatives did. One woman, who said she was like a grandmother to the victim, said the girl has become sullen and withdrawn.

The girl's father fought back tears as he tried to explain "the nightmare" that had enveloped their lives.

"The easiest thing to do in the world is to protect your own child," he said, looking at his former wife. "You chose not to do that, to exploit rather than protect."

Contact John P. Martin at 215-925-2649 or jmartin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JPMartinInky.

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