Analysis: Karen Fletcher Pleads Guilty in 'Red Rose' Obscenity Case
Government scores victory against woman who can't leave her house
Posted May 17th, 2008 03:01 PM by Mark Kernes
Of all the people in the United States posting sexually explicit text to Internet sites, the government chose agoraphobic Karen Fletcher to indict for text-based obscenity - and now that she's pleading guilty
, it's not unreasonable to ask, "Why Karen?"
We know her "subscription base" consisted of just 29 people. We know that she charged a mere $10 for access to her (and others') stories about abuse and torture of children - fictional children, not real children - not to make income from the site, but in order to keep minors away - minors who might get the wrong idea that she was writing about them.
And we know, as the government with all of its resources must also have known, that this poor indigent invalid was so scared of nearly everything that she could barely go out of her house - not to go shopping at the mall, not to go to the movies, not to attend a sports game - not to do any of the things that give more sane people pleasure.
And it's just possible that someone in the bowels of that great government machine decided that that combination made 54-year-old Karen Fletcher the perfect "test case" for the first text-based obscenity prosecution in more than 30 years - so Fletcher was indicted in September, 2006, for publishing six "obscene" stories.
Still smarting from the impending loss of her "easy case" against Extreme Associates - the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned Judge Gary Lancaster's dismissal of the Extreme indictments earlier that year, but on procedural rather than substantive grounds, leaving the substantive issues ripe for introduction at trial - U.S. attorney Mary Beth Buchanan opined that the targeted stories were "disturbing, disgusting and vile." Of course, in order to render that opinion, if she hadn't had FBI print-outs to reference, Buchanan would have had to affirmatively sign on to RedRoseStories.com, pay her $10 like anyone else and then search out the stories in question ... and actually, voluntarily, read them.
"With text, you can always stop reading," First Amendment attorney Reed Lee told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
. "You're less likely to be offended than if an image is just splashed at you."
Lee also thought a case could be made for the stories having social value, in that they provided a psychological outlet for people who had suffered such abuse as children, or who were attracted to the idea of such abuse. For the former, the stories would act as a means of sharing their feelings of frustration and anger at their experiences, while for the latter, they could serve as a damper on illegal actions. Lee called it "breaking th[e] spiral between silence and shame."
Or as Fletcher herself explained, "I have always been afraid of monsters. The monsters in my life had always been real; for too long they were always there with unlimited access to me, and I was helpless to do anything about it. In my stories, I have created new monsters. [They] rise above the horror of the real life monsters. Somehow, making these monsters so much worse makes me feel better, and makes my life seem more bearable. I may still be afraid of the monsters, but at least in the stories, they prey on someone else, not me."
It's unlikely that Buchanan gave such reasoning any consideration in obtaining the indictments against Fletcher. What likely had more pull with the prosecutor was the fact that Fletcher wouldn't be able to mount a very good defense if crowds (like those in and around a courtroom) scared her, and she was so fearful of the outdoors that she was virtually unable to leave her house.
So although Fletcher has some of the best legal minds on obscenity issues representing her, including Florida-based Lawrence W. Walters, ultimately it was her inability to be present in a downtown Pittsburgh courtroom for the week or more that her trial was projected to last that led to her plea.
"The one thing I would say is, the headline of the [Post-Gazette] article ["Afraid of public trial, author to plead guilty in online obscenity case"
] is unfortunate or misleading or something," Walters told AVN, "because I believe it portrays that she has a fear of going to trial, and it's not so much a fear as a medical condition that limits her ability to be away from her home for any length of time, particularly a week-long trial. We'd certainly like to have a First Amendment battle, but it all comes down to her willingness to be able to go through the whole procedure, and this particular client has a very delicate emotional state that needs to be addressed and looked out for by her attorneys and by herself, frankly, and she's not going to be able to."
In any case, Fletcher's guilty plea will result in no prison time; just a period of home detention - the same home she has feared for decades to leave for any reason.
"Basically, she lives in her home and doesn't leave anyway," Walters stated, "so there won't be any real change in her life, but yeah, we've worked out a deal where she'll just be under house arrest."
Fletcher's guilty won't be precedential in any way, but that won't stop the government from using it.
"The government likes to get these convictions, then wave them around in the background and use them in negotiations, backroom deals, and FCC discussions by saying, 'This could be obscene, so you better be careful'," Walters told attorneys Clay Calvert and Robert D. Richards in an interview. "That's where the insidiousness of obscenity prosecutions really comes in because, for every conviction and prosecution, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of uncreated works or works that end up in the trash bin out of the fear of prosecution and its chilling effect. That's where the real value would come for the government with a conviction in the Fletcher case."
Undoubtedly, Buchanan and the rest of Pittsburgh will be able to sleep better at night, knowing that Karen Fletcher is ... exactly where she's been for many years: At home, though no longer sitting at her computer because that's been seized.
Perhaps Buchanan can find some kittens or puppies to indict next.