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Virtual scum

In an astonishing display, a Massachusetts court has made a very controversial ruling -- and, in my opinion, got it right.

Kerry Vann Bell of Shrewsbury was charged with attempted rape of a child. He had corresponded online with someone who negotiated to "rent" him a 5-year-old girl. He and the other party came to terms, and Bell showed up to the meeting with his payment. Instead, he was arrested -- the other party turned out to be a police officer.

Bell's attorney then presented his defense argument: since the child in question never existed, how could anyone attempt to rape her? One might as well accuse someone of trying to kill Batman or rob Santa Claus. The charges ought to be tossed.

The court ruled that "(t)he nonexistence of the child in this case is no less an impediment to the application of the criminal sanction than was the absence of a wallet for a pickpocket, the absence of a fetus in an illegal abortion or the failure of an attempted murderer to put enough poison in a victim's beverage."

I remember hearing theoretical arguments involving odd cases before, including one guy who was apparently charged with attempted negligent homicide (coerced by criminals to take part in a shooting, but the victim was dead before the defendant shot the corpse), but this one is a novel one. I have to give credit to the Massachusetts judges who allowed common sense and justice to prevail.

Good luck at your trial, Mr. Bell. You ought to need it.

Update: Crud, forgot to link to the story. It's here.

Comments (14)

Listen: the next time a chi... (Below threshold)

Listen: the next time a child rapist wannabee like Bell is let go on a technicality unearthered by some so-called advocate ... er, attorney ... let's put him up at a rental in said attorney's neighborhood.

I then dare the lawyer to say a damn thing about it.

If you know your client is guilty of such a heinous act and, if let go, will undoubtedly repeat the offense, your advocacy should be on behalf of the children who are in danger. The theory of advocacy traditionally practiced should go out the window. This are not people at this point -- they are monsters!

On one hand, I agree emotio... (Below threshold)

On one hand, I agree emotionally with you, that this guy is scum and ought to be locked up. But there is something odd about charging someone with a crime for which there is no victim. 'Attempted' crimes have victims: the person who would have been poisoned, the person who was going to be pickpocketed. The court's reasoning is a bit off: there are victims in the pickpocketing and the poisoning cases. Does the court mean to suggest that the wallet was the intended victim and not the person carrying the wallet?

There's also something wrong/odd with charging someone with attempting to commit a crime that could NOT have been pulled off. People are charged with 'attempted' crimes because they failed to pull off the underlying crime... no reason to charge someone with attempted murder if you can charge them with murder. It was their failure to do something 'right' that caused them to come up short: not enough poison, not a good enough shot and so on. In this case, the 'attempter' did nothing 'wrong' in that sense; his failure to pull off the crime is completely attributable to it not being possible for him to have committed the crime. Again, the court seems off: failing to put enough poison into someone's drink to kill them is precisely why we have 'attempted' crimes.. and it doesn't in any way equate to the lack of a victim as there is in the non-existent child abuse case.

BTW, the same issue arose a while back about child pornography if the 'child' was merely a computer-generated image and not an actual child.

Steve sturm, You... (Below threshold)

Steve sturm,
You keep sying "there's something wrong/odd about..." relating to the non-existance of the child and the "impossible" nature of the crime, and yet you miss the point. The CRIMINAL didn't know the child didn't exist. And you also fail to mention that there's "something wrong/odd" about a man who would attemt to "rent" a 5 year old child... All your detatched legalese doesn't change the horrendous nature of the crime that the perpetrator BELIEVED HE WAS ABOUT TO COMMIT

You may not be arrested for... (Below threshold)

You may not be arrested for a state of mind.
Conspiracy to commit? Sure. (He did knowingly take steps to further a crime.)

You can conspire to commit an impossible crime, but to my mind, you cannot attempt it. It's a fine, but definite distinction.

What was in "THE CRIMINAL'S MIND" doesn't matter. The material steps, however, do, and he plainly engaged in them.

So, get him for conspiracy, not attempted rape.
Of course, this sorta begs the question: can you conspire with an "imaginary" conspirator? (The policeman, who was not actually conspiring?)

I think you can, but then, I'm not a lawyer.
I've talked myself into fence-sitting on this, i think.

Oh. and there's another term for "detached legalese." It's called "The Law." And no, the law doesn't change facts. It's a finder of facts. The crime is horrendous. Let's not let moral judgements (even when correct) replace legal ones.

Following up on Travis's... (Below threshold)

Following up on Travis's good points, is intent to commit a crime never sufficient, in and of itself, to render one's conduct criminal? Isn't this the same premise under which crimes opf "Attempt" are committed?

I do get some of what your saying, steve sturm, and I think there should be reasonable limits to what constitutes a crime. Perhaps that limit should be attempt to harm someone who can not defend himself or herself? Bell was intent upon securing access to this child for the purposes of physical harm. He knew his intent constituted a crime -- that if the police were aware of his activities he would be arrested and charged -- and this did not prevent him from attempting to meet with the individual who was offering this child in exchange for money.

In Bell's mind, that child was as good as real, thus he possessed the requisite intent to commit the crime for which he has been charged.

All your detatched... (Below threshold)
All your detatched legalese doesn't change the horrendous nature of the crime that the perpetrator BELIEVED HE WAS ABOUT TO COMMIT

I agree with travis. Most criminal law is predicated on intent not results. Remember, intent is the difference between actual murder and a tragic accident.

Steve,Would you fe... (Below threshold)


Would you feel better about this if the officer corresponding with the guy actually had a 5 year old child that could have been part of the bargain? Or would the idea of the officer offering their child, even if they didn't plan to go through with the deal, also stike you as wrong/odd.

Imagine that this became law, that there had to be an actual child for their to be a crime. Then the next step is to say that since there was no intention of going through with the deal, then there was in essence no "real child" because the child wasn't "really" in the deal. The one logically follows from the other.

So then the police could not catch guys like this unless they had a child that they real did intend to "rent" and of course the only proof of intent that would make sense would be actually doing it. So for obvious reasons the police would not engage in that activity. Now if that became the law, then this guy would know that anyone offering such a child must be legitimate, so he can "rent" with confidence. Does that strike you as a better world?

Hey, got link?The ... (Below threshold)
Malibu Stacy:

Hey, got link?

The only thing I found on this douche was a 2005 story filed prior to his trial which mentioned that he tried to argue this same defense in a Nevada court in the 1980s. The Nevada Supreme Court would have none of it.

The 2005 article discusses somewhat graphically the bases for the two charges of attempted rape of a child and solicitation of sex for a fee. Suffice it to say that Bell did more than just talk, he made preparations for his expected encounter with the fictitious kindergartener.

I'd really like to see the story about the conviction to learn just what the deciding factors were in this case.

So, what next? The cops wil... (Below threshold)
The Listkeeper:

So, what next? The cops will have to use real drugs when they engage in buy-bust stings?

Oh, and when it comes to ef... (Below threshold)
The Listkeeper:

Oh, and when it comes to effectiveness in citizen action, these guys have it down:

If nothing else, the man en... (Below threshold)
Charles Bannerman:

If nothing else, the man engaged in a conspiracey to commit a crime and could be tried for that.
Actually, the undercover cop should have wasted him when he came to get the child.

Travis et al: I said the gu... (Below threshold)

Travis et al: I said the guy ought to be locked up... but I don't want it to happen because a court searches for some emanations and penumbras to justify the desired outcome.

I can't quote the statute but I'd bet it refers to a "child"... a real child and not an imaginary one. If so, I would have thought the readers of this site - supposedly opposed to judges ignoring the plain wording of the language and making their own interpretations of the law - would have agreed that we have a situation here that needs to be corrected by legislative action and not by the imperial judiciary. Or do oppose this type of thing only when it's a liberal judge going off on his own?

"I agree with travis. Most ... (Below threshold)

"I agree with travis. Most criminal law is predicated on intent not results. Remember, intent is the difference between actual murder and a tragic accident."

Of an actual person.
Look, I get travis's point, and i'm willing to grant that intent does often figure in the definition/differentiation of a crime.

What i'm not sure about is the status of the victim, and how concrete that status must be. Conspiracy charges are often brought when the person was definitely up to no good, but so far removed from the execution of the action that its results could not said to be definite or proximate. The terrorist who builds a bomb to kill "somebody" to be later determined is conspiring to kill somebody (he's also guilty of "terrorism," having a bomb, etc.) The unabomber, in the case of those of his victims that lived, was guilty of attempted murder.

This case just seems closer to the first than the second, in that the subject of the crime, and the object of its execution, is distant (in this fact nonexistent.)

Can you try me for attempted murder, if i plot to murder my imagined enemies? Nope. Can you get me for conspiracy if i hire a hitman? Quite possibly.

The best thing to do would ... (Below threshold)

The best thing to do would be to tattoo "attempted to purchase time with a five year old" on his forehead and let him loose in the general population of some supermax prison. That'll do it.

Also - wouldn't it be grand if all of us could help the police to catch these sickos online? We could run circles around them. The sickos, not the cops. The cops are doing an awesome job of catching so many of them before they strike.






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