CBLDF Case Files – U.S. v. Handley

On February 10, 2010, Christopher Handley, a manga collector in Iowa, was sentenced to six months in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release running concurrent with five years of probation, as well as forfeiture of material seized by police after pleading guilty to possessing manga featuring “obscene visual representations of minors engaged in sexual conduct” in May of 2009. It’s the first time a comic book reader has been sent to prison for owning comic books.

Handley was prosecuted under provisions of the PROTECT Act, which empowered prosecutors with greater ability in bringing cases against crimes related to the sexual exploitation of minors.  While much of PROTECT deals with protecting actual victims, there are provisions like the ones Handley was prosecuted under that ban depictions in cartoons, paintings, sculpture and other art forms that lead the viewer to believe that minors are engaged in sexual situations.  The difficulty with these provisions is that they don’t protect victims of actual crimes, but instead criminalize speech.  They also carry mandatory minimum sentences, which his counsel says led Handley to plead guilty.  The CBLDF did not manage Handley’s case.

Court documents show that Handley had no history of criminal behavior, possessed no actual photographic pornography of any kind, and posed no danger to anyone in his community. In sentencing documents, the government argued that the mere possession of graphic manga represented a form of “sexual deviancy” that required imprisonment to be followed by psychological treatment and supervision. Handley’s conviction represents a shameful illustration of the United States government prosecuting an individual for the content of art in his private possession, and for the thoughts he may have had while viewing that art. It’s not alarmist to suggest that Handley’s case represents an illustration of the United States prosecuting thought crimes.

Handley was not represented by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, though the Fund was approached after the case was underway to provide expert witnesses for the defense. Unfortunately, Handley entered a guilty plea under the advice of his counsel before the case saw trial. The CBLDF had previously expressed disappointment with the decision not to fight the indictment.

CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein says, “From start to finish, the case against Christopher Handley was an appalling abuse of the justice system. Chris Handley is going to jail not because of anything he did, but because of what he reads and thinks. In prosecuting this case, the United States government has distorted the purpose of child pornography laws, which are in place to prevent and punish the abuse of actual people who are the victims of a heinous crime. Putting Chris Handley in jail protects no one – he and his family are the only victims.”

Documents now in the public record reveal beyond the shadow of a doubt that Chris Handley represented no threat to his community.

Handley’s character is similar to so many in fandom. He began viewing anime and manga in college, beginning with material like “Record of Lodoss War.” With the rise of the internet, Handley was exposed to the vast diversity of manga, including, as the Defendant’s Sentencing Memorandum explains, “that subset of manga known as hentai, or sexually explicit manga. That interest led to the discovery of hentai manga featuring drawings of characters that appear as young girls, known as ‘lolicon.'” The Defense Memorandum adds, “the lolicon was only a minute portion of his entire collection, which consisted of tens of thousands of manga and anime, representing all genre of the art form.” The Defense describes Handley as “an introverted, 40-year-old virgin” who served in the U.S. Navy and went on to achieve a successful career as a computer programmer following his medical discharge. Handley lives with his mother, whom he assists due to numerous medical problems. His chief social outlets were work and a Bible Fellowship group. The Defense Memorandum explains, “Other than his Bible study group, Mr. Handley spent most of his free time at that house, either with his mother, or alone in the basement, playing online fantasy games such as Everquest 2, and reading comic books.”

Handley is an upstanding citizen who served in the armed forces, and then went on to achieve a successful career in technology. He’s devoted to his family, and is dedicated to religious study. An introvert,he turns to manga, anime, and online gaming for intellectual stimulation and social interaction.

Brownstein says, “Chris Handley could be any of us. He was prosecuted not because he had engaged in any actions that were a danger to members of his community, but because of his tastes in entertainment. Chris’ collection of manga was vast and encyclopedic. A minority of that collection, like a minority of manga, was sexual in nature. It’s a fact that the comics Chris is being punished for possessing contain sexually explicit drawings of minors engaged in sexual conduct. The ideas and images, while likely distasteful to many, are nonetheless drawings of fictional events, not evidence of an actual and despicable crime. No people were harmed or even at risk by Handley’s possession of this manga. It’s telling that among the thousands of items and electronic files sifted through in building the case against Handley, not a single piece of actual photographic pornography was found, only manga. Of that manga, only a small fraction of it was relevant to the case.

Brownstein adds, “This was not a slam dunk case against a clear menace. The government had to squint and search hard to craft a case against Handley that they could prosecute. Part of building that case involved subjecting Chris to a battery of psychological testing, which revealed evidence of issues pertaining to sexual and gender identity confusion. These issues hadn’t manifested in any behavior that made him a danger to others, nor did psychologists find any likelihood that he would become dangerous in the future. Yet Chris Handley lost his freedom – not for any criminal act on his part, but for his choice in entertainment and because the government says his personal sexual identity is deviant, even though he’s demonstrably not a danger to anyone.”

Brownstein concludes, “When the government begins locking people up for the content of their intellect we are entering dangerous waters. Chris’ case is appalling. One hopes that it is not a harbinger of things to come.”