|Michael Wayne Wooten|
A 61-year-old Alabama man received a 30-year prison sentence this week after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. The case reportedly also involved instances of child sexual abuse
Michael Wayne Wooten, of Alabaster, is a former Birmingham police officer and substitute bus driver in Shelby County. Wooten pleaded guilty in January to one count of production of child pornography after authorities said he took explicit photos of students in an abandoned school building.
Guilty pleas often can lead to relatively mild sentences in criminal cases. But U.S. District Judge Inge Johnson had other ideas in this case. Wooten faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of 30 years--and Johnson went for the max.
Alabaster is the largest city in Shelby County, which is one of the fastest growing counties in the country and long has been known as Alabama's most conservative and supposedly "pro family" jurisdiction. But this marks the second time in recent weeks that an Alabaster resident has been sentenced on charges related to child sexual abuse. Daniel M. Acker Jr., a retired Shelby County school teacher, received a 17-year sentence on May 3 after pleading guilty to state charges that he sexually abused multiple girls.
Why was the Wooten case in federal court and the Acker case in state court? And why the difference in the sentences, given that the Acker case seems to have involved more victims, over a longer period of time?
The answer to the first question seems to lie with the nature of the charges against Wooten. After a victim told her parents about potentially inappropriate conduct, a search of Wooten's residence yielded multiple computers with images of child pornography. Because a computer was involved, that means Wooten used the U.S. wires in furtherance of his crimes, so that almost certainly is the main reason he wound up before a federal judge.
What about the maximum sentence for Wooten, even though he pleaded guilty? For one, he did not just gather and transmit pornographic images; he produced them. For another, he did more than record his victims in inappropriate situations; he engaged in abusive touching, much as Acker did. From the print version of the story in The Birmingham News:
Investigators identified 11 victims, ages 4 to 9, that he had exploited over a period of four years, according to prosecutors. Wooten gained access to some of his victims through friendships with their parents or grandparents. Wooten admitted to direct sexual abuse of two victims, according to a court document.
The Wooten case raises sad questions about what drives some adults to such behavior. Wooten himself seems perplexed by that issue. Again, from The Birmingham News:
Wooten admitted in court Wednesday that he had committed "horrible, horrible" things. "I felt like the lowest scumbag on the earth," he told the judge "No rational man my age is going to be sexually attracted to a child," Wooten said. "I deserve what you are going to give me."
I'm guessing that one other factor might have contributed to the harsh sentence for Wooten. You might call it the "Jerry Sandusky Effect." Since the former Penn State assistant football coach was arrested last November on child sexual abuse charges, the issue has become seared in the nation's collective conscience. The Sandusky case quickly was followed by allegations against former Syracuse assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine. And there have been other lower-profile cases, including the nauseating tale of a father in Troy, Ohio, (Kenneth Brandt) raping his three adopted sons and using one of them as a prostitute for two other men.
The Sandusky, Fine, and Brandt cases could all wind up involving federal charges. Sandusky reportedly molested one victim while on a trip to the Outback Bowl in Tampa. That would involve crossing state lines to commit a crime and might invoke federal jurisdiction. The FBI reportedly might pursue federal child sexual exploitation charges in the Brandt case. And agents from the U.S. Secret Service helped search the home of Bernie Fine. Reports slate.com:
What does the Secret Service have to do with a child molestation case?
It’s part of their portfolio. In 1994, Congress created a task force to help state and local law enforcement officials investigate cases of missing and sexually exploited children, and included two representatives of the Secret Service on the committee. Nine years later, the Amber Alert law officially added child abduction and molestation to the list of crimes the agency is authorized to investigate.
If the Michael Wayne Wooten case in Alabama is an indicator, federal jurisdiction can be bad news for someone charged with sexual crimes involving children. Our guess is that, in the current environment, Judge Johnson did not want to be seen as being remotely lenient in a case involving child sexual abuse--and so Wooten received what amounts to a life sentence.
What message does that send to anyone who might have sexually abused children by using the federal mails or wires, traveling across state lines, or engaging in criminal acts in multiple states? I would say the message is this: You picked a real bad time to be a child molester.