Darkest Secret: Prosecuting child predators isn’t always as easy as you’d think

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – With so many stories in the news of people charged with sex crimes against children you may think these offenses are easy to prosecute. But as Jenni Smith, Assistant District Attorney in Sumner County explains, having pictures of naked minors isn’t always illegal.

“We will see what we call child erotica, which is more, just naked children standing around, taking showers, standing on a beach, doing whatever normal day to day activities that aren’t technically child pornography under the case law, regardless of the fact that we know that an offender was probably using that for arousal purposes.”

Smith explained, while Tennessee has tough laws against child predators, some questionable behavior is allowed to slide through the cracks, which is highlighted in an incident involving a hidden camera.

“There’s a case that came out a handful of years ago where a father had set up a camera in the bathroom to film his daughter taking a shower and the court ruled that was not child pornography because that was a child engaging in normal everyday activity and not engaged in sexual activity.”

That case set a precedent said Smith, “Ever since that case came out, the intent of the offender is irrelevant. The actual image, the actual video has to hit in that sexual activity definition.”

For pictures and videos that meet the criminal threshold, and for touching offenses, the process is often complicated by a delay in reporting.

“Either the child is afraid to come forward, or the child is so young that they don’t understand what’s happening to them is wrong. When they finally realize that it’s wrong, they’ll disclose, but by then, it’s been years since the incident happened.”

Prosecutors must then prove the victim’s stories oftentimes without DNA or physical evidence.

“If we can get the child to explain things like what they saw. what they smelled, what they heard what they tasted,” said Smith. “Those kinds of details make all the difference in being able to prosecute these types of cases.”

And children can’t always recount their story in court.

“Something we also have to look at with these touching offense cases is putting that child victim on the stand, because every time you do, it re-traumatizes that victim.”

In these cases, a plea deal is often offered…which means every child sex abuse offender doesn’t face the same penalties. Some may receive probation while others receive jail time.

As for the cases without enough evidence to bring charges, Smith said it can get frustrating. “It’s very frustrating to know that the child is a victim and they’re not going to get their justice, on top of the fact that there is a predator out there on the loose. We just have to wait for him to do it again.”

News 2 investigates the alarming crime trend now coming to light in Middle Tennessee after the COVID-19 pandemic. In a special report, Darkest Secret, learn more about the fight to stop child pornography and what it truly entails – Click here for our special reports.

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