Mas_turbantes N.C. just prosecuted a teenage couple for making child porn — of...

N.C. just prosecuted a teenage couple for making child porn — of themselves

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Is it possible to sexually exploit one’s self?

That question is one of many conundrums in the recent case of a teenage North Carolina couple charged with making and distributing child pornography.

Their alleged crime: snapping and sending nude photos — of themselves.

The case has drawn fierce criticism from legal scholars around the country, many of whom see it as an egregious misuse of laws intended to protect — not prosecute — minors. The story of the two teens caught in a terrifying legal morass has also made headlines as far away as Russia. Meanwhile, local officials have begun blaming one another for the bizarre prosecution. Even the lawmaker who crafted the law says it’s being misapplied.

“Pretty much everything about this case is appalling,” Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, told The Washington Post in an e-mail.

The strange story began last year when the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office was investigating accusations of a statutory rape involving students at Douglas Byrd High School in Fayetteville, N.C., according to the Fayette Observer.

As part of a broad investigation, Sheriff’s deputies examined the cellphone of Cormega Copening, a star football player who was then 16 years old.

The deputies didn’t find any evidence relating to the alleged statutory rape. What they did find, however, were consensually taken nude photos of Copening and his girlfriend, Brianna Denson, also 16 at the time.

(The Post is using the teenagers’ names because they have been charged as adults. They did not return requests for comment.)

“We seized his phone and while our investigators went through the phone they saw there were photos of himself and another person,” Sgt. Sean Swain told ABC 11.

In almost any other state, such consensually taken photos would be completely legal or, at worst, a misdemeanor. But in North Carolina, Copening and Denson came up against a counterintuitive confluence of laws.

“In North Carolina you are considered an adult at 16 years old as far as being charged,” Swain said. “But to disseminate and receive sexually explicit texts, photos or videos, you must be over 18.”

And so it was that in February, the two teenagers were arrested for sexually exploiting … themselves.

Charging documents listed Copening as both the culprit (as an adult) and the victim (as a minor), simply for snapping a nude photo of himself in the mirror and sending it to his girlfriend.

“Copening’s age traps him in a sort of sexting legal netherworld,” wrote North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. “He’s accused of exploiting a minor (himself), but because North Carolina is one of just two states that automatically tries 16-year-olds as adults, he’s being tried as an adult.”

All told, prosecutors charged Copening with five felony counts of sexually exploiting a minor: two for taking nude selfies, two more for sending them to his girlfriend, and one for possessing an explicit photo of Denson on his phone. Denson, meanwhile, was charged with two felony counts of sexual exploitation of a minor: one for taking a nude selfie and another for sending it to Copening.

The felony charges meant that Copening faced up to 10 years in prison, if convicted; Denson faced up to four. They also could have been labeled sex offenders for life.

Copening, a college football prospect who had transferred to another school over the summer, was benched by his new team because of the charges. Both his and Denson’s photos were splashed across news Web sites from North Carolina to Russia.

The case quickly drew intense criticism, both in Fayetteville community and around the globe.

“We’ve got too much big crime in this community to put this kind of effort into wrecking two kids’ lives,” wrote the Fayetteville Observer’s editorial board, recommending the statutes be amended. “This should never happen again to anyone.”

Legal scholars lined up to pick apart the prosecution’s case. Many focused on the sheer absurdity of the situation.

Credit: Washington Post

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