It’s a sad truth that childhood sexual abuse tends to create a cycle of repeating sexual abuse, as the abused child reaches adulthood and behaves in a way he or she was taught to think is normal. Unfortunately, the courts are not sympathetic to arguments for lenience on that basis. That was the conclusion reached by the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Heaton, in which Mark Twain Heaton III argued that the mandatory minimum sentence for
child pornography possession did not permit the court to consider his own history of abuse. This made the mandatory minimum cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, he said. The Eleventh Circuit ruled that, based on circuit precedent, Heaton had not made the showing that his sentence was grossly disproportionate enough to violate the Constitution.
Heaton was regularly and sadistically sexually abused by a family friend from the ages of 9 to 14. As an adult, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety resulting from the abuse. At the age of 26, he was convicted of molesting a child himself, although he denies that it took place. His current offense, at the age of 38, was receiving, possessing and distributing thousands of child pornography images. His psychological evaluation said he met the criteria for pedophilia, but that this was likely a result of his own abuse and his efforts to understand it. The opinion doesn’t note whether Heaton was convicted by a jury or pleaded guilty to distributing and possessing child pornography, but it says he was sentenced to 180 months, the mandatory minimum for someone with a prior conviction for molesting a child.
On appeal, Heaton argued that the mandatory minimum is unconstitutional in his case because it does not permit the judge to consider his history of sexual abuse or his resulting PTSD. As a result, he argued, he had a diminished mental capacity and the sentence is grossly disproportionate to the crime. The Eleventh noted that as a threshold matter, it must first find that the sentence was grossly disproportionate. But it declined to do so, noting that successful Eighth Amendment challenges to non-capital sentences are very rare. That’s partly because courts give substantial deference to Congressional authority, finding that sentences within statutory limits are generally constitutional. Supreme Court precedent also says that mandatory sentences are not by themselves unconstitutional, and the high court has found harsher sentences constitutional. As a result, the Eleventh said, Heaton did not make the showing required for an Eighth Amendment violation.
The Eleventh Circuit is right that it’s difficult to win an Eighth Amendment argument against a sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld life sentences for possessing small amounts of drugs and for repeat offenders who committed petty theft. It’s also hard for people who committed child pornography crimes to get sympathy from judges (and jurors and voters), because they often have an emotional reaction to
child sex crimes, regardless of circumstances. But I believe that’s unfortunate, because the result is that thousands of lives are simply thrown away. It’s possible that a person like Heaton could benefit more from therapy than prison—but our society makes it easier to get into prison than into therapy.
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