Commentary on Christopher Handley's Sentencing

by Carl Horn, Feb 24th 2010
Carl Gustav Horn is a manga editor for Dark Horse Comics and was formerly a manga editor for Viz. His writings have appeared in Japan Edge, Animerica, Wired, and other publications.


Advocates for the defense are often admonished that that they should remember the victim, and think of their suffering as a human being. That is exactly what led me to speak out in the defense of Christopher Handley, the victim in this affair — the human being suffering; and, if he is in the only party to suffer, he is regrettably joined by others in that group, his friends and family.

When one human has wronged another, it is sometimes desirable, and sometimes essential, that the law become involved. In this particular case there was only one human being involved—who was never accused of wronging a person. Nor either, in fact, of wronging drawings. He was accused of something still more imaginary, of committing an offense against an abstraction — given the label "obscene speech."

Valuing the imaginary over their fellow human beings is an accusation often leveled at otaku. But what are we to make of the morals of someone who values the imaginary so much more than a human being that they would wish to send that human being to prison over it? Who is the one here who shows themselves unwilling to relate, the one who lacks empathy and compassion for others?

Since this was a federal prosecution, it was brought in the name of the people of the United States. It is worth asking then, what we, the people, have gotten out of it. It cannot be revenge for some other person who was wronged; there was no other person. It cannot be that we have identified someone who was a threat to other people; if the judge truly believed that, he would have been required to register as a sex offender. It cannot be that this will make him a good citizen, contributing to society; the record shows he already was before this prosecution was brought. And I don't say that patronizingly; in some ways he has been a better citizen than me; a veteran (I never served my country), a 4.0 student (I never earned such grades). But his future prospects are now in doubt.

As near as I can make out, what we achieved in the end — our takeaway, as they say nowadays — was this: through opening a person's mail, we, the people of the United States, found evidence suggesting that a person intended to masturbate. This person, confronted with the evidence against him, was then made to confess that he had, in fact, been masturbating in private for many years. It's frightening to realize that had his mail not been opened, there is no reason to think this would have ever been brought to our attention, and that, indeed, he might have gone on masturbating in private for decades more, without we, the people, ever getting the chance to know, or to learn all the shameful details about it. It is for this achievement we must thank — if after thinking it over we are inclined to gratitude — the prosecutors.

The prosecution's sentence — cruel, making restitution for no one, and of no net benefit either to him or to society — was nevertheless — nevertheless! — considered mercy, considered leniency by those who inflicted it upon Handley (as Handley inflicted nothing on anyone). Indeed, they felt it would have been fully justified and deserved to give him a sentence thirty times as long as they did; although he received six months, he was threatened with as much as fifteen years if he sought to defend himself in court. It is understandable, if regrettable, that he did not try a court defense, and entered a plea of guilty. The plea, of course, does not even bring closure for Handley; it merely sets some vague limits on his future suffering.

There are those who will say, "Well, he broke the law." Did he? If they stop to think for a moment, they would realize it isn't so simple in the real world. There are, after all, two ways a person becomes guilty of having broken a law; either they sign a paper under threat, as Handley did, saying they have done so — or, they are found so in a court of law, the decision being upheld on appeal. If it were only for our online opinion (and that of the prosecuting attorney) to decide that someone has broken a law, there would never be a need for such things as defense attorneys, or trials. It was never established by a trial whether he was in fact guilty. Why is this relevant? Because the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, even knowing the facts of the case, nevertheless believed that a successful defense of Christopher Handley could have been made in court; if they did not believe so, they would not have become involved — they fight to win cases.

This may very well happen again. If it does, the CBLDF will be prepared to fight. Very little good has come out of this situation; but one sign of hope is the many, many fans who recognized what was at stake here — the rest of a person's life, above all — and rallied to contribute to the one organization that specializes in defending the free speech rights associated with comics, regardless of whether they are American or Japanese. This isn't the first time the CBLDF has seen people accused over "obscene comics," nor the first time they sought to do something about it. I was moved to see Neil Gaiman's particular support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in this matter; an author who is a father with children (and who won the top American medal for children's literature, the Newbury, during the course of this case). There is one particular fan I know who thought the manga involved were disgusting; not an uncommon opinion by any means. At the same time she was dumbfounded at people who couldn't separate that from what was happening here. She weighed one against the other, and made the moral equation that this was an injustice.

Regardless of our weaknesses and our limitations, we can show we know right from wrong. That, indeed, is what is so terrible about the prosecution of Christopher Handley; I believe the prosecution's own record showed he knew right from wrong. Bad people are known by the fact they do bad things. He didn't.

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