Holbrook pleads no contest, citing legal cost

Terence P Ward —  April 12, 2017 — 9 Comments

GASTON, N.C. –Druid Daniel Scott Holbrook pleaded no contest Apr. 4 to dissemination of obscenities, accepting a suspended sentence as well as six months of probation. While Holbrook’s claims of innocence ring true for some members of his community, others are withdrawing contact in the wake of what is functionally similar to pleading guilty.

Scott Holbrook [Courtesy Photo]

Scott Holbrook [Courtesy Photo]

Holbrook, who has maintained all along that the images were downloaded unintentionally, agreed along with his wife and a family friend to speak about what happened over that July 4th weekend. He also wrote about what happened in a recent blog post, in which he recounted how he and his wife were entertaining an old friend from out of town and decided to download a movie using a peer-to-peer BitTorrent client. He said:

“The first file I tried to download, at the top of the queue, was tagged as being the movie we were looking for, though the actual file name was some unmemorable string of letters and numbers. When I opened the partially downloaded folder to check on its progress, I saw that what was inside it was not the sought-after video file, but images. I opened one to see what it was, and discovered immediately that it was very much not what I’d been trying to download. I was horrified.”

The offending files were deleted, he said, as was the video download, and the three friends went on with their evening.

Holbrook’s account is essentially how his wife and friend Eric remember the evening’s events.

Peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent are intended to leverage the power of multiple machines. A file can be downloaded from several different locations simultaneously, speeding up the process. To facilitate that process, clients such as BitLord, which Holbrook was using, allow uploading of those same files immediately.

Holbrook acknowledges he didn’t turn off that setting.

According to the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, “Files shared through P2P applications may include pirated software, copyrighted material, or pornography. If you download these, even unknowingly, you may be faced with fines or other legal action.”

Files shared on these systems are named and tagged by other users, and typically the ones that rise to the top of the queue are not those that are accurately labeled, but those which are subject to the highest volume of traffic.

Eric said that he believed at the time that there was no outside risk in seeking to download the movie.

“I knew viruses and unwanted files could slip through, but the site they were using was one that was widely used by other friends in that area, including many in the Pagan Community, and seemed to be a fairly trusted site.” He provided screen shots of a number of text messages that place him at the scene.

Holbrook later found out that the images were legally classified as “erotica” because the content was “revealing” and “sensual,” rather than explicitly sexual. However, that fact made the one he viewed “no less disturbing.”

However, Holbrook was unaware of any legal distinction until months later, when an FBI agent and two police officers came by for an interview in the early morning hours of Oct 18. The files involved had been flagged as illegal, and their investigation had led to Holbrook and his laptop computer.

After the computer was examined, the assigned detective charged Holbrook with “dissemination of obscenity,” which Holbrook said was, “a rarely-used and vaguely-worded crime that has an extremely broad range of application . . . . In my case, it applies to the fact that the offending images — despite them being accidentally accessed — were then seeded/disseminated and intercepted by the police. [The detective] emphasized, however, that what I was being charged with was not a sex crime and did not entail registration as sex offender, or even jail time.”

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Believing that being cooperative had earned him a simple process of speaking to a judge, Holbrook instead found himself put into a cell after the judge set bail. As he went to court alone and was unable to post the bond, his wife Amber found out what had happened the same way many Pagans did, from a local Gaston Gazette article.

“I found out at 4:38 that afternoon from a friend via text message after they had seen the Gazette article on Facebook,” she confirmed. “It felt like my entire world had been entirely obliterated. Panic and shock completely took over. After a moment I composed myself and called my mother to figure out what to do and contacted a couple of friends to figure out how to post bail. I also talked to my spiritual mentor shortly after that.”

Eric helped with the fund raising, and also submitted a defense of his friend to The Wild Hunt, “but I quickly found out that due to being there I was a witness and was bound by law to keep my mouth shut and just watch the internet continue to talk and speculate.”

Some consequences were swift. Holbrook lost his job after missing work while sitting in a cell, and the couple was evicted after his address was published.

“When I arrived home after that day, I discovered that same article — an inaccurate and sensationalized rendering of the police blotter — had been sent straight to the ADF Mother Grove and was being actively discussed on email lists and social media,” said Holbrook.

“My own Facebook wall was being peppered with insulting comments, and people who I’d thought were friends were dropping in droves from my contacts list. I soon found that everything from my place of work to anyone the Druid group I’d been leading had been in contact with, and most of the groups and organizations with which I had any involvement, had been broadcast across the internet in a way that made my family and I feel distinctly unsafe, not to mention prematurely condemned.”

Holbrook added, “However, the majority of people I’ve actually interacted with, including most of my local community, have been enormously understanding and supportive, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to them.”

Holbrook was, at the time of the incident, deputy regional Druid for North Carolina in Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, as well as organizer of the Raven’s Hollow Protogrove. He resigned that leadership position soon after the arrest and, while the protogrove was also dissolved, its members continue to meet outside of ADF auspices.

He also resigned as local coordinator for Piedmont Pagan Pride, likewise to spare leaders “the difficult situation that had been laid at their feet.”

When the case came to trial after several adjournments in response to motions and scheduling conflicts, Holbrook entered a plea of “no contest” on the advice of his attorney.

“I emphatically did not plead guilty,” he said. “I pled[sic] no contest to my single charge, because the only alternative would have been to take the case to a lengthy trial which was far outside the reach of what I could afford.As it was, I was forced by my own severely-limited resources to depend on the generosity friends and family to afford the services my lawyer had thus far provided, and no one I knew had access to anything like the $10,000 his office told us it would cost to try my case before a jury.

“Furthermore, my lawyer advised me that because I have made no secret of my religious affiliation in an area where conservatism and Southern Christianity dominate (to the extent that our Pagan Pride events get whole Christian counter-festivals set up down the street to protest us), it was extremely unlikely that I would receive fair treatment from an unbiased jury.”

Holbrook’s attorney was unavailable for comment.

Reverend Tony Brown of the North Carolina Church of Wicca was on hand when the plea was entered. As a member of the local Pagan community, he wanted to know as much as possible firsthand. He’s also read the accounts written by Holbrook and Eric.

“Some of the details in those accounts differ from what I heard in court,” Rev. Brown said. “I don’t know if that’s because of additional information or clarifications that Scott got from his probation officer, or what. I know that both the DA and the judge did describe the mandatory treatment program as ‘sex offender treatment,’ but they didn’t provide any details about the actual name of the program itself.”

A plea of no contest is a statement that defendant does not wish to contest the charges. While it may pave the road to a lesser sentence, it nevertheless is treated the same as a guilty plea or verdict; in some locales, including this one, they are entered into the official court records as “guilty.”

Brown said that among the conditions Holbrook agreed to are warrantless searches of his electronic equipment. The judge also ordered the laptop destroyed, which Brown thought was “misdirected,” as the computer itself could have been wiped and reused.

Amber has “mixed feelings” about the deal. “I feel that we took the best option that we were given, but that Scott was given an unfair deal, since the officer made the statement several times to multiple people that he thought Scott just got caught up in some BS.”

She and her husband speak of now being able to try to rebuild their lives.

“The most difficult injustice I’ve encountered though has been from the Pagan community,” said Eric, the members of which he feels jumped to conclusions. “In their zeal to cut themselves off from association with a certain class of criminal, they jumped on our situation and assumed that’s what we were even when that was not what the legal documents themselves implied.”

Eric goes on to say, “It was being widely published, disseminated, and discussed in Pagan journals before Amber and I even had Scott safely home. I understand the need to separate ourselves from abusers, but there is an unfortunate tendency in some Pagan circles to succumb to gossip and engage in witch-hunting behavior without seeking out the whole story, or in this case even reading the actual charges. Due to the small size of the Pagan world, one of the effects of this is that even little people like Scott get booted to celebrity status by the barest hint of a scandal, and the story is allowed to grow and skew.”

Pagans have become much more aware of, and vigilant about, sex-related crimes since the arrest of Kenny Klein in 2014. “I think people like Klein can make us hypersensitive,” said Brown. “Scott’s case is only marginally similar, and there’s a real danger of unfairly lumping the two together.”

Holbrook is expecting the recovery to be hard work. “I don’t imagine the road forward to be at all easy, and there are many relationships in the Pagan and Druid communities that need to be restored and the trust and honor inherent in them renewed, though a number of people local and otherwise have assured me that I have their support. My Druid group has expressed repeatedly that they want to continue holding regular ritual as they have done and see me as a respectable person who they want to keep around.”

Some of those relationships are within ADF. A statement from that organization read in part:

ADF does not automatically ban people with convictions from membership, as we believe everyone should have access to our church and public worship. We do however disallow those with certain felony convictions from holding leadership positions within the organization. Per the court, Mr. Holbrook is not required to register as a sex offender, therefore not automatically restricted from a leadership position. However, Mr. Holbrook does not hold any position of leadership within ADF, and we don’t anticipate him holding one in the foreseeable future. We wish healing to all parties involved, and may the Kindreds bless all of us.

While not a member of the former protogrove, Eric said of them, “I do know they weren’t a large group, more a small group of friends who would get together for ritual and work together on study programs, and this series of events did put an uncomfortable spotlight on them in the local scene. But they’ve kept their spirits up from what I know. Scott is also a member of other local groups as well, and there has been some strain there as well.”

Relations with other local groups will also change. While Brown has generally warm feelings toward Holbrook, the North Carolina Church of Wicca’s doors will not be open to him for the time being.

“Our events are known for being family friendly,” he explained, “and whatever my personal feelings about Scott might be, a suspended sentence isn’t the same as an acquittal. Our group talked it over and we didn’t feel we could justify having him involved. It just wouldn’t be fair to parents who might have children in attendance.”

While that may seem a rebuke, Brown is hopeful that the conversation about these issues can continue in a civil fashion. “If people can keep in mind that this isn’t a case with easily discerned lines of black and white, then maybe we can maintain at least some sense of unity,” he said.

“I know that Scott and his family (including his close friends) must feel beleaguered, and it would probably be impossible for them not to take things personally. I’d like everyone to do their best to maintain a sense of empathy for everyone involved. There’s bound to be a lot of disagreements about decisions being made, and maybe even about what the underlying facts are. But those disagreements don’t have to turn people into enemies.”

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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • kenofken

    Based on what has been reported so far, I cannot mentally categorize Holbrook as even being in the same galaxy of offender as Kenny Klein. In fact, I’m not convinced that Holbrook represents a threat of any kind to the community and I’m not sure whether the charges involved should even be treated as a crime.

    Frankly, “dissemination of obscenities” it sounds like a bullshit charge. I still have yet to hear any substantial description of what the images contained. Were they photos of children or not? If so, they clearly don’t rise to the level of child pornography or they would have been charged that way. If the subject of the photo was in fact minors, what is the context of the images? Were they created with a clear intent to serve as erotica or were they merely everyday images which some pedophiles eroticized in their own minds and circulated? If it is the latter, than essentially anyone posting pictures of their daughter’s high school cheerleading competition or family beach vacation is at risk of criminal prosecution.

    If the photos in question are of adults, it should not be a criminal matter, period. There is no legitimacy to punishing “obscenity” in a modern secular democracy when consenting adults are involved. If I ever get tapped to serve on a jury in such a case, I will vote to nulllify the law itself even if the defendant is responsible for the act beyond a doubt. If something as simple as sharing your favorite adult site links or photos with adult friends can land you a “dissemination” charge, than the vast majority of Pagans, and in fact Americans, are criminals.

    In Holbrook’s case, the fact seem to show that he had no criminal knowledge or intent. If it is true that authorities acknowledged as much but charged him anyway, that raises some terrifying possibilities. If your computer is hijacked by malware and used to distribute something illegal without your knowledge, you could be jailed simply because some police task force needs to justify its expenses. Holbrook’s case is striking for another reason: True pedophiles/predators who get busted never have just one download’s worth of questionable material on their computers. Every case I’ve seen involves hundreds of images and videos, at a minimum, and almost none of it is borderline stuff. It’s blatant, hardcore kiddie porn.

    I’m open to persuasion, and I carry no water for Holbrook (don’t know him at all), but so far nothing about his case adds up to the profile of a predator in my mind. The fact that the state was able to put someone in a legal corner is not enough for me to condemn someone. I hope my gut feeling about his innocence is correct and he is able to move on. I also understand the predicament that Pagan organizations have in his case. I cannot fault them for excluding Holbrook, particularly from leadership positions. The stakes are too high. Considerations of safety and leadership integrity must remain paramount, even in cases when the question mark over someone’s name is itself highly questionable.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Frankly, “dissemination of obscenities” it sounds like a bullshit charge.I must agree. Since the SCOTUS censorship decisions of about 50 years ago hardly any erotica that is not child pornography or revenge porn is a crime. It sounds to me like the “justice” system saw a chance to score a minor conviction on grounds too flimsy to support a major one, and took it. As a resident of Cuyahoga County, Ohio from 1945 to 1994 I don’t find this the least surprising and thus was unperturbed by NeoWayland’s preference for his own judgment to what a court found, on an earlier thread. Almost as soon as I moved to next-door Lorain County a mother I know who had been taking innocent nude photos of her daughter for nine years got snitched by a photo developer shop and charged; a community outcry (including support from the UU church) that made the national press, made the prosecutor back off to some formal hassle that did not involve a criminal record.I still don’t agree with NeoWayland simply that “government is the problem” but crap like this takes the steam out of my dissent.

  • After what happened in the Klein thread, I was waiting for someone else to comment first.

    This one isn’t a false accusation, but it demonstrates that we can’t always trust the mechanism and structure of the law to deliver justice.

    There is an old idea that actually predates the country. It’s called jury nullification. A jury is obligated to judge not only the guilt or innocence of the accused, but also the law under which they were accused. Judges and lawyers don’t like jury nullification. All those times that a juror said “The law wouldn’t let us reach any other verdict” are times when the jurors weren’t told their power.

    That being said, Mr. Holbrook was railroaded on a technicality. His true friends will stand by him.

    “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. The friction tends to arise when the two are not the same.”

    “Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it may. And outlive the bastards.”

    — Lois McMaster Bujold, A Civil Campaign

  • Tauri1

    This is what happens when you download files illegally. He would’ve been better off going to Amazon and paying the $4.99 price for a movie and left it at that.

    As the saying goes that I learned in my high school commercial math class: “Let the buyer beware!”

  • Christian Day

    This is a tough one. My first instinct is to ask, “why didn’t he just call the police when he found that on his computer?” But then I think, what would most of us do? I’m sure I’d have called the police but I imagine I’d have been terrified doing so, especially if those files were the byproduct of an illegal torrent. So there is this umbrella of suspicion in all of this that they were more interested in covering up that they had these files rather than trying to get justice for the poor kids that were exploited in their making. People often seem to forget that such materials aren’t just illicit data to possess but that unspeakably horrible acts go into their making. For that alone, I would have taken a chance and called the police and I am disappointed that they did not do that for the sake of the children exploited. That being said, if he really was innocent, there’s the question of why not fight it? But then again, let’s not forget the case of Damien Echols, who was freed from jail after allegedly murdering children in the woods solely by pleading no contest so we’ve already learned what a joke the idea of no contest is in American jurisprudence. If they really knew Echols was innocent, as they surely must have, they should have just overturned his conviction, not required “no contest.” So, by contrast, that could be implication of this person’s innocence. So yeah, this is all a tough one. Still think he should have reported it for the kids though. Peoples’ lives are ruined in the production of such things and so our system should treat their possession quite heavily indeed.

    • kenofken

      He seemed to be pretty cooperative and forthright when the cops did show up. It didn’t earn him any points in the end. It’s still not clear that any kids, or anyone at all, was truly exploited in the creation of whatever Holbrook downloaded. Not knowing that makes any discussion about this situation rather hypothetical, but we work with what we have.

      What I’m taking away at this point is that we should realize that trying to get something for nothing carries all sorts of risks and pitfalls. Second, we should be arming ourselves to the teeth with every available tool against the surveillance state – TOR, VPN, hard encryption etc. I would advise everyone to check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It is a treasure trove of information about these technologies written for non-IT people. There is no such thing as bulletproof anonymity or security online, but these tools offer some very strong protections. Ironically, perhaps, many were developed to help pro-democracy and human rights activists safe in authoritarian countries. Our own nation is rapidly tilting in that direction, if it has not arrived already.

      • Christian Day

        Oh, I get he was cooperative when they found out, but I do wonder if the cops would have been more cooperative if he had reached out first. I guess we’ll never know so you’re correct in that it’s all hypothetical. That he did not reach out first does leave me thinking there’s a bit of smoke there but, as I said before, it’s a tough one. I’m definitely not settled in my opinion on it.

        On the subject of your second paragraph, you aren’t kidding. When I opened my first shop, a friend sent me to this accountant who proceeded to tell me how to hide this and sneak that and I was like, “dude. I’m a public figure. There’s always someone looking and I can’t get away with squat.” He wasn’t hired. Even if I wanted to pay people under the table, or smoke pot, or do whatever it is that regular people can get away with, I learned a long time ago that I can’t. But now, as you’re pointing out, everyone’s a public figure since none of us really has any privacy. I think we are quickly moving into George Orwell territory and people should proceed with that in mind. Even those things that are developed to expand democracy and human rights can be weaponized. You’re very on point.

  • Damiana

    On top of everything else, having an eviction on his credit record is no day at the beach. What a nightmare!

  • Damiana

    It’s also too bad that the ADF didn’t make a clearer statement about Holbrook being convicted of a misdemeanor.

    Also, what is the “treatment program” Holbrook has to undergo? It’s unclear.