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Ninth Circuit reverses child porn conviction for North Highlands man, citing improper juror instruction

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals has tossed a North Highlands man’s conviction for child porn, ordering he will stand trial a second time.

In an opinion issued last week, Judges M. Miller Baker, Daniel P. Collins, and Kenneth Kiyul Lee said the federal jury that convicted William Lamar Blessett was improperly instructed on two possible forms of an “interstate nexus” when they should’ve only been instructed on one.

The case was shaken up when the Ninth Circuit handed down a ruling in a separate case, US v. Chilaca, where the court held that charging separate possession counts for explicit content found on different devices, but in the same place, at the same time, under the same search warrant, was double jeopardy.

The Chilaca decision caused the government to amend Blessett’s indictment from one count of receiving child pornography and five counts of possession to one sole count of receiving child pornography with a lesser-included offense of possession. Blessett’s lawyers and the US Attorney’s office later stipulated to move to trial on the possession charge.

The lower court, the judges ruled, incorrectly instructed the jury to interpret two possible ways of proving a connection to interstate commerce – an element required for federal charges – instead of the one included in the indictment.

“It is impossible to know from the terms of the superseding indictment whether the grand jury would have indicted Blessett for the possession offense that rested on the non-overlapping interstate-nexus element, and we therefore must conclude that the challenged jury instruction constructively amended the indictment,” page 8 of the opinion reads. “And when this court determines that constructive amendment has occurred, ‘a reversal is always in order.'”

Blessett was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison in 2018, after his lawyers argued at a two-day trial that, while their client was sexually attracted to young boys, the government was unable to definitively prove that Blessett knew exactly what images were on his computer, which was shared by his boyfriend, and that some images included in evidence didn’t constitute child pornography at all.

An initial investigation into Blessett was opened in 2017 when file-sharing service DropBox tipped off the NCEMC that a user working out of a home in North Highlands had uploaded over 100 images and videos containing child pornography. Authorities later obtained a federal search warrant for Blessett’s devices and descended on his house.

When agents raided the house, Blessett was found alone in his bedroom and was removed for questioning. Investigators also confiscated an HP Laptop, two tablets, and five smartphones from various companies. Blessett originally said he hadn’t used the internet since 2006, but eventually confessed that he downloaded child pornography off Kik and screen-captured them from his DropBox using his grandmother’s Wi-Fi.

The images, according to prosecutors, were “highly graphic and sickening.” His devices contained thousands of images and dozens of videos depicting children as young as toddlers being raped and tortured, as well as images depicting bondage, pain, and “other sadistic and masochistic conduct.”

“His desire to collect and look at these images is reprehensible,” Special Assistant US Attorney Robert J. Artuz wrote in a sentencing brief.

After Blessett was quickly convicted, some of the children featured in the videos, now adults, provided statements to the court before his sentencing. Prosecutors used those statements to show the “deep and damaging effect” on the children who Blessett collected videos of.

“Each time someone downloads the pictures showing me being raped and abused, I picture some pervert enjoying self-gratifying pleasure from my pain…” one victim said. “When a market exists for child pornography, it will continue. I am constantly victimized, knowing the awful truth that I can never escape these photos or the people that profit from them, both sexually and monetarily.”

Ethan Biando
Ethan Biando is a freelance journalist from Sacramento. His writing focuses on crime, courts, and policing. Find him on Twitter @ethanb822

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