Lasaga case on hold for appellate court ruling

The judge presiding over former Saybrook Master Antonio C. Lasaga’s federal child pornography trial will wait until an appeals court rules on a similar case to sentence the professor, delaying the process many more months.

The determination of Lasaga’s fate now rests, at least in part, with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which is currently hearing arguments in a case with potentially great implications for a motion that Lasaga’s lawyer, William F. Dow III, filed in November.

Dow argued then that the charge of possessing video tapes containing child pornography to which Lasaga pleaded guilty in February 2000 should be struck down on constitutional grounds. His argument, based on the recent Supreme Court decision in United States v. Morrison, is similar to others that have been made in federal district and appeals courts throughout the country.

Both sides in the Lasaga trial have agreed that the appeal in the 2nd Circuit case, United States v. Griffith, could set a precedent that Connecticut U.S. District Court Judge Alvin W. Thompson would be obligated to follow if he deems it is similar enough to the Lasaga case.

Lasaga also pleaded guilty to a charge of receiving computer files containing child pornography and is not currently contesting the second charge. The plea agreement originally worked out with prosecutors recommended Thompson sentence Lasaga to 11 to 14 years in prison.

Oral arguments are expected to be made in the Griffith case in the next several months, with a decision from a three-judge panel of the circuit court to follow, possibly months later.

Meanwhile, the Lasaga case will sit idle, as will pending state sexual assault charges and a civil suit filed on behalf of a boy whom Lasaga allegedly filmed engaging in sexual acts in a Yale geology classroom and in the Saybrook master’s house.

Thompson and attorneys from both sides will be reviewing the Griffith case as it progresses to ensure that it remains “on point,” said Annie Chang, Thompson’s law clerk.

Prosecutors originally notified Thompson about the pending Griffith decision because of its potential relevance to the Lasaga case, Deputy U.S. Attorney John Danaher said.

Brothers Anthony and Christopher Griffith were convicted in New York last year of possessing pornographic tapes of girls they lured into prostitution, but appealed the child pornography convictions to the 2nd Circuit in September by referring to the Morrison decision.

In Morrison, the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Violence Against Women Act that allowed women who were victims of violence to bring suit against their attackers in federal court.

The court said Congress’ power under the Constitution to enact legislation affecting interstate commerce did not extend to this portion of the act because gender-based violence did not directly affect such commerce.

Defense attorneys have seized upon this decision to challenge the federal child pornography statute, which uses the interstate commerce clause to give federal courts jurisdiction over such cases in which the materials involved — the video tapes in the Lasaga case — were manufactured in another state.

Dow and others like him have argued that this “jurisdictional hook” is insufficient to pass constitutional muster if one takes the Morrison decision into account.

Although the 2nd Circuit has not yet addressed this contention, several other circuit appeals courts have already rejected similar arguments based on the Morrison decision.

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