The Department of Justice has announced that Christjan Bee, 36, of Monett, MO was sentenced this week to three years in federal prison without parole, followed by five years of supervised release because of comics he possessed on his computer. Last fall Bee pleaded guilty to possession of what the government characterized as a “pornographic cartoon, which depicted children engaging in sexual behavior.” Prosecutors assert the material “is categorized as obscene and therefore illegal,” despite the fact that the material was not tried in court under the Miller obscenity test. Bee pleaded guilty to possession of obscene material rather than stand trial under the original indictment of receiving child pornography. He did not contact the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund for assistance in his case.
CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “At this time, little is known about the material Bee pleaded guilty to possessing. Based on the government’s characterization of the material, I remain unpersuaded that it is legally obscene under the Supreme Court’s Miller obscenity test. It is also distressing that Bee is being sent to prison for mere possession of obscene material, where there is precedent that the court’s power ‘does not extend to mere possession by the individual in the privacy of his own home.’ Even absent full specifics on the material Bee pleaded guilty to possessing, this is, on many levels, a distressing case.”
Bee’s case came to the attention of the government when his wife contacted authorities. The DOJ states, “On Aug. 8, 2011, Bee’s wife contacted the Monett Police Department and reported that she had found files she believed to be child pornography on a computer used by her husband. Police officers executed a search warrant at Bee’s residence and seized his computer.”
The Justice Department states that a forensic examination of Bee’s computer produced “a collection of electronic comics, entitled ‘incest comics.’” The comics are described to contain “multiple images of minors engaging in graphic sexual intercourse with adults and other minors.” The DOJ asserts that the comics lacked serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value — areas that would have been tried if Bee’s case went before a jury.
Brownstein says, “The government’s statements that the comics came from an electronic file folder called ‘incest comics’ and depicted minors engaged in sexual conduct certainly may be enough to make the work distasteful, but that’s not enough to deem a work obscene. The government’s description can easily describe a variety of comics that possess artistic and literary merit, including Robert Crumb’s ‘Joe Blow,’ a story I frequently lecture about because it was the subject of a badly reasoned obscenity conviction in the 1970 case People v. Kirkpatrick. It could also apply to any number of meritorious works of comic art, including the works of Alan Moore, Ariel Schrag, Phoebe Gloeckner, and others. Distasteful or disturbing subject matter does not make work obscene. ”
Bee is the most recent comics reader to be prosecuted and convicted under the PROTECT Act (Section 1466A of the United State Code). The government previously secured a guilty plea from Christopher Handley in a case where CBLDF was a consultant, but did not manage the defense. The threat of mandatory minimum sentences is a key weapon in the government’s arsenal for securing such convictions.
According to United States Code, Section 1466A, it is illegal for:
Any person who … knowingly produces, distributes, receives, or possesses with intent to distribute, a visual depiction of any kind, including a drawing, cartoon, sculpture, or painting, that -
(1)(A) depicts a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; and
(B) is obscene; or
(2)(A) depicts an image that is, or appears to be, of a minor engaging in graphic bestiality, sadistic or masochistic abuse, or sexual intercourse, including genital-genital, oral-genital, anal-genital, or oral-anal, whether between persons of the same or opposite sex; and
(B) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
Brownstein concludes, “We are disappointed that Bee did not reach out to the CBLDF – we retain an expert legal team who are able to quickly manage cases against comics, and often get them dropped before they go to court. We’re also alarmed that the government continues to prosecute readers of comics at the cost of taxpayer dollars that would be better spent going after criminals who prey on and abuse real children. The key lesson here is that when a First Amendment emergency strikes, make CBLDF your very first call.”