PASCAGOULA -- A grand jury has found insufficient evidence to indict four more people in unrelated child-pornography cases in Jackson County, bringing to 17 the number of child-porn cases investigated by the Sheriff's Office and later dismissed for lack of evidence in the last 2½ years. In the same period, 15 cases have resulted in indictments.
District Attorney Tony Lawrence's office presented the cases to grand juries. The latest four cases to result in no charges came after grand juries convened in March and May.
Lawrence said state law prevents him from discussing grand jury proceedings, though he did issue a written statement about the latest round of cases. People charged in child porn cases are prosecuted on charges of child exploitation, a felony punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
"Child exploitation is a very offensive crime in that in every one of those cases someone actually sexually abused a real child and preserved that abuse in photographs and videos," Lawrence said. "That child, who endured the sexual abuse, is re-victimized each time the image of their abuse is viewed and shared.
"The Constitution, while it only requires law enforcement to have probable cause to make an arrest, requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt to prosecute and convict. Further, the law requires that law enforcement have proof beyond a reasonable doubt as to each and every element of the crime, including proving that the illegal images were knowingly possessed and the identity of who actually possessed it."
He said a grand jury "carefully" reviews each case based on all the evidence presented and makes "the final determination as to the proof in every case."
When asked to comment on the cases resulting in no charges, Sheriff Mike Byrd sent a statement, saying, "When we are alerted by the ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children computer) system, we investigate. We arrest on probable cause and present it to the district attorney. It's up to them to prosecute it."
Problems with cases
Though Lawrence did not wish to talk about specific cases, he has in earlier interviews provided examples of problems with Sheriff's Office child-porn cases resulting in no indictments:
n Forensic examinations failed to show child porn on the computers
n There was no proof the images were of people under age 18
n The conduct in the material was not sexually explicit
n Multiple users were accessing a device without proof of who "actually and willfully" possessed the images
n Damaged evidence could not be examined by a forensic examiner to confirm the presence of child porn
"I have not and will not comment on the facts of any specific case," he said. "The law prohibits me from commenting as to cases which have been indicted and it is simply unfair to comment about a specific defendant, who is constitutionally presumed innocent, when his case was not indicted."
In 2008, sheriff's investigators arrested one person on a child exploitation charge; in 2009, they arrested three.
In 2010, the state Attorney General's Office created the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, comprising 61 regional task force agencies nationwide.
The program, funded through the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, allowed local law enforcement agencies' officers to be trained on the advanced computer systems. The systems are capable of detecting child-porn downloads on Internet-ready devices such as desktop computers, laptops, smartphones and iPods.
Not long after, Byrd announced Investigator Hope Thornton was assigned to investigate the cases. She was later joined by Investigator Linda Jones.
Soon, the number of arrests started to soar.
By the end of 2010, Byrd was touting the success of the investigations, with 23 arrests made that year. In 2011, the Sheriff's Office arrested 19 people on child-porn charges, and at least seven in 2012. Since then, a grand jury has found sufficient evidence to indict at least 15 of those arrested.
A growing number of the arrests, however, have resulted in no charges or a decision by Lawrence's office not to prosecute due to insufficient evidence.
'Ruined my life'
William "Layne" Brushaber, a former police dispatcher in Pascagoula, was among those arrested in 2011 on a charge of possession of child porn, but a grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict him.
Brushaber says his life was ruined when he was arrested. For more than two years, he waited for his case to make its way to a grand jury. During that time, he had the support of his family but little else. He also was facing personal challenges because his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. His father would live long enough to learn a grand jury had not indicted his son.
"Before, my life was good," Brushaber said. "I had a steady relationship. I had friends. My arrest eventually caused the downfall of all my relationships. I lost 95 percent of my friends.
"It's hard to get back on your feet, especially when you know you are innocent the whole time. Even when people believe you, nobody wants to be associated with you because it's such a heinous crime. Once your name is put out there, it's hard to get past that. I still recognize people that know my name and know my face and they shy away from me because of the reputation that I have now."
After Brushaber's arrest, he was fired from his job of nearly four years and lost his home to foreclosure.
"I lost everything," he said.
His attorney, Adam Miller, said Brushaber was wrongfully arrested.
"I would describe this as a life-altering event," Miller said. "As with Layne's case, the same is true for many other cases that have come to light out of the Sheriff's Office, surrounding the same individuals, same officers, the same Sheriff's Office. They need to be held accountable for destroying individual's lives.
"This is an electronic age. Once something happens like this, it never disappears. Now you can do a search on a name and it comes back up. It's going to be with him (Brushaber) for the rest of his life."
Miller is also representing James Hagan, who was arrested in 2011 on charges of embezzlement, molestation and child exploitation for possession of child pornography. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Hagan on the embezzlement and molestation charges. He was indicted on a child exploitation charge, but the District Attorney's Office dismissed the case in November, citing insufficient evidence.
Hagan filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against Jackson County, the Sheriff's Office, Byrd and four detectives, including former cyber-crime investigators Thornton and Jones, as well as the county's insurance carrier, Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America. Hagan is seeking $30 million in punitive and compensatory damages.
The lawsuit accuses Byrd, Thornton, Jones and detectives Eddie Clark and Chad Heck of violating Hagan's civil and constitutional rights, inducing others to give false testimony, engaging in perjury, false imprisonment, defamation, witness tampering and gross negligence.
Hagan, who supported one of Byrd's opponents in the last election, has said he was unfairly targeted.
In fact, the lawsuit alleges, Byrd has such a habit of going after his political or personal enemies that his employees have an acronym for these investigations -- APE, short for Acute Political Emergency.
The lawsuit says Byrd and others knew there was no evidence to arrest Hagan on any of the charges.