I'm Lonnie Joseph Parker, a physician who spent more than four years in federal prison after being convicted of possession of child pornography under conditions which the average citizen would not believe could possibly happen.
An article last week in the Democrat-Gazette covered my recent hearing [requesting an injunction in federal court over a new law that prohibits a registered sex offender from being a Medicaid provider in Arkansas]. One of the issues raised and being considered by the court is the "depraved nature" of the images for which I was prosecuted, images I received through a now-antiquated AOL mass-messaging system. The horrible nature of those images was what motivated me to preserve the evidence and call the authorities in the first place — I was that upset and angry. Virtually anyone on the Internet for any reason, especially during the 1990s in the early days of email, has received unwanted or objectionable material. Most people simply ignore such things and go on about their day. Perhaps my life would have been drastically different if I had done the same.
My first concern upon seeing these images was the fear that they had been sent to my daughter. But when I told this to the U.S. Customs agent who later interviewed me, he noted that I tried to blame the existence of the images on my daughter. This is ridiculous. My first and primary concern was for the safety of my children. Later it became clear that the images had not been sent to her specifically, but they bothered me enough that I felt I should contact the authorities to let them know. This was in the very early days of the Internet (late 1996 and early 1997), and since I did not know which federal agency had jurisdiction, I called a friend in federal law enforcement to ask whom I should contact. He suggested I call the FBI.
I called the FBI in Rochester, Minn., where I was on civilian deferment from the Air Force to study medicine on a military scholarship. We discussed what I had seen and he said there wasn't much they could do without more information, but if something actionable came along I should let them know. (Let me stress that I was not instructed to destroy the evidence.) Later I received more spam from someone advertising that he had a child available for sexual purposes; again, I called the FBI in Rochester. They asked that I try to establish a meeting so they could set up a sting operation to catch him. This was done and he agreed to meet at a hotel near Minneapolis, about 83 miles from Rochester. This information was given to the Rochester FBI and they in turn gave it to the Minneapolis FBI. I spoke to the Minneapolis FBI over the telephone many times. I have the telephone records from that time to prove this.
A trap was set but was unsuccessful. The FBI again asked me to let them know if another meeting could be arranged or if anything else developed. Again I was not instructed to destroy any evidence. Since I was about to graduate from the Mayo Clinic Medical School, I called the FBI and asked what I should do with the materials on my computer. I was told to call the FBI in Little Rock, where I moved in July to start my training in emergency medicine. I called the FBI after my arrival and gave them a summary of everything that had happened. They did not offer to come and take possession of the materials but told me to bring it in, "when I got a chance."
ER training is not a 9 to 5 job and I was kept very busy over the next several months. Out of the blue, U.S. Customs agents came to my workplace to question me. They seized my computer and refused to believe that I had ever contacted the FBI. They were angry that I would even consider calling the FBI and insisted that they had jurisdiction over these matters. I was charged with a crime, and when I was brought to trial, the customs agents told the judge there was no record that I had ever called the FBI. He believed them and refused to subpoena those records. The assistant U.S. Attorney, Lesa Jackson (who, it turned out, was not a licensed attorney at all), told the jury in closing arguments that had U.S. Customs agents found any evidence documenting my contact with the FBI, we would not be in court. I was sentenced to three years in prison. The prosecution asked that my sentence be increased due to the depraved nature of the images, but the judge refused. I lost years of my life for the actions of someone I tried to stop.
I could not believe that the FBI would investigate citizens of the United States and keep no records whatsoever. A federal investigator later found that the FBI had asked the local police force in Minneapolis to assist them with the operation. A Minneapolis officer had called me and had properly documented his contact with me — and had included in his report a fax from the FBI listing me as the reporting party. My mistake was not realizing at the time that this call had come from a local police department and not the FBI. My attorneys and I presented these records to the judge who sentenced me and asked for a new trial, but he ruled that because I hadn't found the records before trial, he would not consider them now. He also ruled that because I could not prove that the FBI kept a copy of their own fax, I had not proven that they had withheld records favorable to the defense.
I appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals; the appeals court not only affirmed the conviction but added 20 more months to my sentence.
A few weeks after I had served every day of my sentence the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that enhancements like mine were unconstitutional and should not have been allowed. Since they couldn't give me back the years that had been taken from me, my attorneys and I asked the judge to remove my supervised release. He refused. During my imprisonment, someone from the federal government (perhaps the U.S. Attorney's office?) pressured the Air Force to give me a dishonorable discharge. After a panel of three military officers reviewed the new evidence, I became the only military officer in the history of the United States granted a discharge under honorable conditions while in federal prison. While imprisoned, I studied my medical books and taught high school classes to prisoners. After my release the Arkansas State Medical Board, who had acted quickly to suspend my license when the charges came out, reviewed the new evidence, had me examined by a forensic psychiatrist, and voted unanimously to return my license to practice medicine with no restrictions whatsoever.
I have tried to rebuild my life since. I still hope for, but no longer expect, justice, and the time for that is long past. But after 15 years I do hope that someday the attacks will stop and I can just quietly live my life caring for my family and serving the citizens of Arkansas.
L. Joseph Parker
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