Chattanooga: Former doctor's sentence lowered in child porn case

Chattanooga: Former doctor's sentence lowered in child porn case

June 18th, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

A federal judge's rare decision to drastically reduce the prison sentence of a former Chattanooga doctor convicted of possessing child pornography did not prevent his family from expressing deep disdain for the prosecution.

"How many lives have you saved?" Earl McElheney's mother angrily asked Assistant U.S. Attorney John MacCoon after the courtroom cleared late Wednesday afternoon.

"You need to think about the victims," Mr. MacCoon responded, declining to address her further.

Shortly after, one of Mr. McElheney's college-aged sons burst into the courtroom and hurled an obscenity at Mr. MacCoon and the FBI agent who investigated his father's 2005 case. Authorities found more than 3,000 images of child pornography on the doctor's computer.

Such strong family loyalty for the former doctor, 52, was evident during Wednesday's day-long re-sentencing hearing, which was ordered by a federal appeals court late last year. Mr. McElheney shed tears toward the end, telling the court he wishes he could "turn back time every day."

Mr. McElheney's three children, his parents and other family members sat for hours at the proceeding, hoping along with his defense attorneys that U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier would reduce his sentence to fewer than five years. Judge Collier came close, giving the doctor six and a half years instead.

Judge Collier originally sentenced Dr. McElheney in late 2007 to 11 years in prison for his crimes, a decision the defense called "harsh." Taking into account federal sentencing guidelines, Judge Collier actually gave the doctor a punishment that was about two years less than the maximum he could have received.

"The (sentencing) guidelines are high, but the reason they are high is because children are having their innocence robbed," Judge Collier said at the first sentencing hearing in 2007. "This country has an epidemic of child pornography which is causing untold damage to countless children."

But in the years since the original ruling, several U.S. Supreme Court cases have called into question the federal sentencing guidelines and have served to remind judges that they ultimately have discretion when deciding how to punish defendants.

Mr. McElheney's defense team used those Supreme Court rulings during their arguments to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year. The appeals panel reversed Judge Collier's 11-year sentence because of a change in the law that now says defendants do not have to prove "extraordinary circumstances" in order to convince a judge to consider sentencing them outside federal guideline ranges.

At Wednesday's hearing here, defense attorney Marya L. Schalk reminded Judge Collier that sentencing guidelines for those accused of child pornography -- which the U.S. Congress developed to punish the most sadistic producers of child porn -- effectively have targeted the least harmful offenders such as Mr. McElheney, who did not actually produce any child porn or solicit children.

There were cases in which defendants raped children, Ms. Schalk pointed out, and they still received sentences less harsh than her client did.

"Instead of (the guidelines) getting the people Congress wanted to target, they've gotten everybody," Ms. Schalk argued.

Right before Judge Collier lowered Mr. McElheney's sentence, he conceded that "the goal of the sentencing guidelines has been somewhat lost with regard to child pornography cases."

While Mr. MacCoon reiterated his opinion that Judge Collier made the right decision the first time around, defense attorney Jerry Summers expressed satisfaction with the outcome.

"We had hoped for even lower than (six and a half years), but we appreciate Judge Collier re-addressing the issue," Mr. Summers said.