Investigators with the St. Louis County Police and St. Charles County sheriff's departments routinely search file-sharing networks for computers that are downloading or offering up child pornography. People who collect the contraband can't disguise it, Chatten says, because each file has a unique identifier, a string of numbers called a "hash value." "It's the DNA of that file," he explains.

Once detectives find a cache of contraband in the virtual world, they subpoena the Internet service provider for a physical address. "They find out it's Johnny Jones in Lake Saint Louis," Chatten says. "They don't care about how the images got on the computer."

Chatten's job is to look for alternative explanations. A virus can redirect an Internet browser to illegal territory without the user's knowledge, he says. And people who keep child porn online often tag it with misleading file names. "Especially on the peer-to-peer file sharing," he says, "There's no guarantee what you're searching for is what you're going to get."

 The stakes are high for child pornography defendants. If prosecutors can prove one knew what he or she was downloading, the minimum sentence is five years. "You can touch a kid and get less time; you can get probation," criminal defense attorney Paul D'Agrosa complains. "Nobody can explain to me why those penalties are so severe in comparison with the actual crimes."

Carrie Costantin prosecuted sex crimes at the state level for thirteen years before she became an assistant U.S. attorney. She hasn't forgotten the frustration of "little kid" molestation cases. "She's going to have to get on the stand and testify and not freeze up," Costantin says, recollecting a typical scenario. "There's no physical evidence. He'll have no priors, and he'll say, 'I don't know why she's saying these things.'"

Half the time, Costantin lost.

Costantin handles most of the child pornography cases at the U.S. attorney's office in St. Louis, and she says it's "a totally different ballgame." When she can present the court with a stack of photos, she asks, "What is there to disbelieve?"


Seated at the defendant's table, hands cuffed in his lap, John Charles Davis has a few moments to reflect on his future before the federal marshal comes to take him away.  

Davis was indicted for possession of child pornography in 2007, after he engaged in an online chat with an undercover FBI agent in Detroit. Thinking he was talking to a mother of two young girls, he sent the agent a video of men performing sex acts with children.

With a tip from Detroit, local agents searched for more contraband in Davis' south St. Louis apartment. Among the digital photos stashed on his hard drive was a file named "very young girl done by dog."

Davis, 48, wears a red button-down shirt, open at the neck. His handlebar mustache matches his blond hair, combed back and parted down the middle. He worked in the City of St. Louis' information technology department before his arrest. After serving the five years and ten months that U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry just handed him, the former techie won't be allowed to touch a computer without a probation officer's written permission.

Gazing across the nearly empty, hushed courtroom, Davis concludes, "I pretty much don't have any life."

  While packing her up files, federal public defender Diane Dragan says, "As you saw, I used every argument I could think of." She reminds Davis that under the plea agreement, there's no appealing the sentence for possession of child pornography. Dragan takes a swig of water from a Styrofoam cup, and leaves Davis with his two supporters. "Sorry," she says on her way out.

Davis is still stunned. "I would never hurt a child," he says. "The photo thing — I can see where that would hurt the child, but not physically."

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