FBI task force cases in jeopardy

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An appeals court decision casts doubt on numerous North Georgia sexual predator convictions and raises further questions about the operations of an undercover FBI task force already under scrutiny for possible impropriety.

On March 14, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a computer pornography conviction against Dennis Cosmo, who was charged in 2010 based on evidence obtained by the Northwest Georgia Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The court found that police were planting the idea of a crime in Cosmo's head and that the court didn't have sufficient evidence to prosecute.

The role-playing scenario that was examined in Cosmo's case involves police posing as a parent or step-parent and propositioning people who respond to their ads to have sex with their son or daughter.

But if the suspect has never talked to a child and only an adult, the computer pornography charge has no merit, experts said.

Appeals Judge Michael Boggs ruled there wasn't sufficient evidence for Cosmo's computer pornography charge and that he is entitled to a new trial on his remaining charges of criminal solicitation.

Defense attorneys and criminal experts say the appellate court's decision could affect criminal charges in other sex cases -- at least 20 in Catoosa and Walker counties alone -- in which similar police tactics were used.

Furthermore, one law expert said, such findings against law enforcement can undermine what police are trying to do -- catch child predators.

"A sting is an important arm of law enforcement to making sure youngsters aren't victimized," said Ron Carlson, a University of Georgia law professor. But when the government appears to be planting the idea of a crime, it brings their work into question, he said.

Prosecutors plan to appeal the appellate court's decision to the Georgia Supreme Court.

However, if it stands, Lookout Mountain District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said, his office will have to re-examine the cases brought in by the FBI task force and decide what to do with charges the court has found to be the result of entrapment.

Ken Hillman, the special agent in charge of the task force, is under federal investigation after being accused of allowing a civilian to work on the task force and even to arrest suspects.

In Catoosa County, special appointed Judge Grant Brantley, of Cobb County, is scheduled to hear motions before deciding whether prosecutors or law enforcement officers involved in the FBI task force are withholding evidence in 10 criminal cases. The outcome could lead to those cases being dismissed, defense attorneys say.

Defense attorneys who first challenged the task force cases last month say the appellate court's decision further shows how officers in the task force were out of control.

"It's terrible the law enforcement we trust are creating the crimes," said Atlanta defense attorney McNeill Stokes, who represents several clients arrested by the task force. "It's happening in Catoosa County with relish."

Experts say police should be luring people into their sting who are trying to commit crimes, but it's entrapment if police put the idea into a person's head.

If there are clear signs that police used entrapment, the judge is supposed to instruct the jury on entrapment charges, which wasn't done in Cosmo's case, said Bob Jarvis, a Shepard Broad Law Center professor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Indictments from more than 20 cases in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit show that the parent or stepparent scenario has been popular within the FBI task force for at least two years.

Police use nicknames such as "Daddy Chris," or "Daddy K" and then try to set up meetings. If suspects go along with the idea and meet with police, they are arrested. The suspects typically are charged with attempted child molestation and computer pornography.

In Cosmo's case, he testified that he never thought he was talking to someone under age. Based on transcripts from the task force, the court found that the idea to have sex with an underage girl came from police and not Cosmo. When Cosmo objected, the officer on the other end of the computer pushed further.

"What you should be trying to do as a police officer is to find people going out and committing crimes and stopping them, not getting innocent people in the public," Jarvis said. "You should not be manufacturing crimes -- because there's plenty of real crimes."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.