Former Saybrook College Master and Yale geology professor Antonio C. Lasaga, who was convicted last year of sexually abusing a young New Haven boy he was mentoring, is awaiting a ruling on his appeal to reduce his 15-year federal prison sentence.
Lasaga’s attorney Diane Polan wrote in her appeal that the sentence was improperly increased based on “extreme psychological injury to the child victim” and on Lasaga’s “possession of an extraordinary quantity of child pornography.” Polan also said a statute under which Lasaga was convicted is unconstitutional, according to a brief filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York.
Polan filed the appeal last month.
In February 2000, Lasaga pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of receiving “numerous graphic image files” of child pornography and one count of knowingly possessing “two video tapes containing images of child pornography,” the brief stated. In addition to the federal term, Lasaga also received a 20-year state sentence to run concurrently.
“The trial court made a mistake sentencing him extra time,” Polan said. “There was extra time [sentenced] due to abuse to the victim.”
John A. Danaher III, the U.S. Attorney who handled Lasaga’s appeal hearing, said the increased sentence was appropriate due to the circumstances surrounding the abuse.
“The sentence was enhanced because of the extreme psychological damage to the boy he ‘mentored,’ quote unquote,” Danaher said.
According to the brief, Polan claimed that the district court did not find that the victim’s psychological injuries are “much more serious than that normally resulting” from such sexual abuse. But Danaher said no such finding was legally required and that the Seventh and Ninth circuit courts determined that such “comparative” evidence was not required, so long as the initial findings by the district court established “a substantial psychological impairment.”
During sentencing hearings experts from the Yale Child Study Center gave testimony on the degree of psychological harm the boy suffered due to years of sexual abuse inflicted on him by Lasaga. One expert said when she spoke with the boy about the abuse, he punched a wall and immediately ran upstairs.
The district court determined that an enhanced sentence was appropriate because the evidence “has shown that the psychological injury suffered by the victim was a substantial impairment of the psychological and emotional functions of the victim which manifested itself by changes in behavior patterns and which is likely to be of an extended or continuous duration.”
The appeal also contends that the extraordinary number of pornographic images was improperly factored into the calculation of Lasaga’s sentence. According to the brief, at the final sentencing hearing, the court made a conservative estimate that Lasaga collected about 150,000 pornographic images of children.
However, Polan said that the 2002 Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition invalidated the use of virtual child pornography as the basis for conviction. If no real children were shown in the images collected from Lasaga’s computer, then the district court had no basis for enhancing the sentence, the brief stated.
“The claim on the appeal is that the court didn’t make an assessment on whether they had been real or morphed [images],” Danaher said.
Danaher stated in the brief that Lasaga never contended that “the images he possessed were of ‘virtual child pornography.'” Furthermore, Danaher said Lasaga previously admitted that he received “pornographic photographs of children,” and not merely of morphed images of children.
The appeal also challenges the constitutionality of the legal framework under which Lasaga was charged with possessing videotapes containing child pornography. According to the document, the statute of conviction “exceeded the authority of Congress under the Commerce Clause.”
Danaher said there was a question of “the jurisdictional basis — if the pornographic materials traveled interstate.” But Danaher said Lasaga waived his claim that such authority was exceeded, thus “foreclosing its further consideration on appeal.”
Yale Law School professor Daniel J. Freed said the Second Circuit court could take anywhere from a couple of months to one year to reach a decision on Lasaga’s appeal.
“The Second Circuit is usually quite efficient in the disposition of its cases,” Freed said.