PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Thomas Goodman will almost certainly die in federal prison.

And in the end, sentencing Goodman to 260 years wasn’t a difficult decision for U.S. District Chief Judge John McConnell.

“That was one of the most egregious cases I’ve seen on the bench,” McConnell said. “The thought of not giving the victims the safety and security of knowing that the person that horribly victimized them will never get out, really only pointed to one sentence.”

The Warwick man’s severe sentence – which was 160 years above what prosecutors were seeking – came after Goodman pleaded guilty to federal charges of producing child pornography and disseminating it. The conduct went on for years and victimized six girls, including an infant.

But Goodman, and his substantial punishment, is an outlier among recent child pornography prosecutions.

“Most are possession,” McConnell said. “It’s probably the most difficult case to sentence.”

Few people think those guilty of child pornography offenses – from possession to distribution, or the most insidious, production – should go unpunished. But there has been increasing debate over the appropriate sentence based on an offender’s conduct, and as technology has surpassed the current laws and regulations that govern such sentences. 

That debate was pushed into the spotlight during the nomination hearings of incoming U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Conservative members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee took Brown Jackson to task for frequently sentencing child pornography offenders below the recommended guideline range as set forth by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

It’s a similar situation in Rhode Island’s federal court.

A Target 12 review of U.S. District Court data since 2019 shows all three Rhode Island U.S. District Court judges have sentenced child-porn defendants excluding life sentences to an average of nearly 10 years in prison. But of the 32 defendants sentenced during that time, 20 received less time than the guideline range called for. Four were at the low end and only one was sentenced above the recommended guidelines, according to the review.  

“In child pornography cases across the country, federal judges sentence people below the guideline range 63% of the time,” McConnell said. “That’s because there is a general recognition by judges across the country that the guideline ranges are not helpful. They are overly severe and they are not tied to culpability, which is one of the reasons we sentence.”

Judges use the commission’s sentencing table to determine a range for punishment. The table weighs both a defendant’s “offense level” – ranging from one to 43 – along with their criminal history. For a defendant with an offense level of one, and a criminal history of one, the offender could face anywhere from zero to six months behind bars. A defendant with an offense level of 43 would face life in prison regardless of their criminal history.

In child pornography cases, there are multiple factors that can increase a defendant’s offense level, including: age of victim, distribution, use of computer and number of images. For instance, someone caught with more than 600 “images” is given a five-level bump in their offense level. Videos under five minutes are assigned a value of 75 images.

“I have been on the bench 11 years now and in every child pornography case I have had, the enhancement for in excess of 600 images has applied,” McConnell said. “The guidelines were written, I think, when little old men in trench coats went to the post office and got their pornography out of a post office box.”

The Sentencing Commission itself has recommended the guidelines be rewritten to “reflect the evolution of technologies used to distribute child pornography,” according to a 2021 report to Congress.

“Four of the six enhancements— accounting for a combined 13 offense levels—cover conduct that has become so ubiquitous that they now apply in the vast majority of cases sentenced,” the report stated.

But Congress has so far declined to give the commission the authority to rewrite the language on child pornography sentencing, resulting in judges sentencing “most non-production child pornography offenders below their guideline ranges,” according to the 2021 report.

Earlier this month President Joe Biden nominated seven people to the commission, which hasn’t had enough members for a quorum in three years. The nominees still must be confirmed by the Senate.

As judges have drifted from the guideline range, one of the most difficult questions they seek to answer when determining a sentence is: will the defendant do it again and will the crime escalate?

“That’s one of the hardest issues that we have to grapple with as a sentencing judge, which is attempting to determine if the person charged with possession of child pornography before us will become a hands-on offender,” McConnell said. “It is what keeps many of us awake at night.” 

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‘Not a Victimless Crime’

According to Sentencing Commission data, Rhode Island federal court on average handles more child pornography cases than most other districts in the country.

Just over 8% of all federal sentencings in Rhode Island are for child pornography related offenses, compared to just about 2% at the national level. The state’s top federal prosecutor said this is largely because it’s criminal activity that state and federal investigators – particularly the state police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force – have focused on.

“This is not a victimless crime,” Rhode Island U.S. Attorney Zachary Cunha said in a recent interview at his office. “Every single one of the images or videos that are issued in our cases involve a minor victim who’s being sexually exploited.”

Cunha said “virtually all” of the cases involve prepubescent victims, often toddlers and infants, like in the Goodman case.

“We hear – and present to the court as our role as advocates – some of the stories from the victims who have experienced this conduct and how it affects them physically and emotionally for many years beyond the actual period of time that they are subjected to abuse,” Cunha said. “It’s important to bring these cases. It’s important to vindicate victims’ rights and interests and that’s why we do it.”

How federal prosecutors charge these cases can have a profound effect on the sentence a person gets because they can often trigger a mandatory minimum punishment that ranges anywhere from five to 15 years. 

A defendant who has been convicted previously of a child pornography offense will receive a mandatory minimum 15 years in prison. Someone who has produced child pornography gets at least 10 years. And someone who is convicted of distribution receives a minimum of five years behind bars (possession does not come with a mandatory sentence).

Nearly 78% of child pornography cases that have come through federal court in Providence in the last three years had a mandatory minimum sentence attached to them. 

McConnell said federal prosecutors will often have the choice of charging someone with possession or distribution based on the way the technology works now.

“People receiving child pornography onto their computer, their computer is opened up so others can receive it,” McConnell said. “Because of that method of possessing child pornography almost every possession could be charged as distribution in our technological world.”

In the 2021 report, the Sentencing Commission found that file sharing, or peer-to-peer (P2P) programs, are “the most prevalent methods of receipt for nonproduction child pornography offenders.” The commission urged Congress to change the sentencing system so that it better aligns with modern technology and the bad behavior they’re seeking to thwart, including by those who profit from distribution.

“Congress may wish to revise the penalty structure governing distribution offenses to reflect the evolution of technologies used to distribute child pornography and to differentiate between different types of distribution,” the report stated.

A slight majority of defendants that face a mandatory minimum in Rhode Island’s federal court, however, are given a sentence above the required punishment. Of 25 defendants facing a mandatory minimum, 16 received prison time beyond the required sentence.

Vicious Cycle

After 11 years on the bench, McConnell said he noticed something about each child pornography defendant that has come into his courtroom.

“Every single one of them has suffered from a sexual assault trauma in their infancy or in their youth,” he said. “I have not seen anyone who currently, as an adult, who currently commits the horrendous crimes of possession, distribution or even production of child pornography who hasn’t been a previous victim of sexual assault.”

That was the case with Goodman.

Thomas Goodman

The now 49-year-old is sitting at a federal prison 2,500 miles away from where he committed his crimes, in Tucson, Ariz. His release date is Jan. 31, 2240, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons,

Citing Goodman’s personal history of trauma, his defense attorney asked for a sentence of 22 years.

But McConnell was too concerned he would do it again if he ever got out and wanted to send a message to the victims that they no longer had to worry about Goodman. He was going away, forever. 

And McConnell is already thinking about the next person like Goodman who will undoubtedly come before his courtroom in the future. The thought makes him concerned not enough is being done to prevent child molestation – which perpetuates the vicious cycle of abuse. 

“What that does tell me is as a society we have to get our hands on new and better ways to prevent child molestation because not only does it victimize that person, if the history in my courtroom is any indication, that person will go on to then victimize somebody else,” McConnell said.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.