Ex-Headmaster’s Child Porn Conviction Reversed

     (CN) – The en banc Delaware Supreme Court overturned a 50-year sentence for the former headmaster of an elite private school convicted of child pornography charges because search warrants were not specific enough.
     Christopher Wheeler was convicted in 2014 for possessing 25 images of child pornography on his laptop computer. At the time, Wheeler was headmaster at Tower Hill, a private preparatory school in Wilmington, Del., founded by members of the DuPont family. U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and former Rep. Michael Castle both attended the elite school.
     Attorneys for Wheeler successfully argued before the Delaware Supreme Court that warrants used to search his home, car and Tower Hill office were overly broad and violated his rights.
     “Failure to describe the items to be searched for and seized with as much particularity as the circumstances reasonably allow offends the constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures,” Delaware Supreme Court Judge Karen Valihura wrote in a March 2 opinion. “Because the State was able to more precisely describe the items to be searched and seized, the witness tampering warrants violated the particularity requirement.”
     According to the ruling, Wheeler asserted throughout the proceedings “that the state utilized charges of witness tampering stemming from his admission in 2013 that he had molested two brothers in Pennsylvania in the 1980’s as a pretext to search broadly for child pornography.”
     The two brothers wrote letters to Wheeler confronting him about the sexual molestation, saying they were prompted by the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. One of the letters was also sent to Delaware authorities, court records show.
     “I shudder at the notion that you, in your career, have chosen an environment that brings you into daily contact with other boys who are as old as I was when you molested me,” one of the unidentified brothers wrote in his letter to Wheeler.
     “I will not compound your pain by attempting to deny or in way deflect responsibility for my actions 35 years ago. I did those things,” Wheeler wrote in a reply letter.
     Armed with that correspondence, Delaware prosecutors obtained the witness tampering warrants that were used to search all of Wheeler’s electronic devices and digital media. The warrants “covered Wheeler’s entire digital universe and essentially had no limitations,” the March 2 ruling states.
     Wheeler’s lawyer Thomas Foley argued before the Delaware Supreme Court in January that authorities used possible witness tampering as an excuse to obtain the warrants ostensibly to search for child pornography.
     The 25 images of child pornography were discovered during a cursory search of Wheeler’s iMac computer, found in his piano room closet, according to court records.
     Wheeler was arrested for possessing child pornography but was never charged for the sexual abuse of the Pennsylvania brothers.
     Wheeler was a subscriber to certain electronic “newsgroups” which automatically “cached” images on his computer, according to the opinion. He argued that there was insufficient evidence to convict him “because the state could not establish that he was aware of the existence of the offending images in his ‘newsgroup cache,'” the ruling states.
     Nor could prosecutors prove during trial that Wheeler ever viewed the 25 images cached on his computer, as they only appeared in the newsgroup cache and not anywhere else on the computer, Wheeler argued.
     Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis found in 2014 that Wheeler “intentionally possessed twenty-five separate images of a child engaging in a prohibited sexual act.”
     That finding was based on the “entire record, including all direct and circumstantial evidence,” which included more than 2,000 images of boys “engaged in sexual acts” and another more than 3,000 considered “child erotica,” according to the 2014 ruling. Only the 25 images found on the iMac computer were used as direct evidence to convict Wheeler.
     Valihura wrote March 2 that Wheeler “is an unsympathetic figure,” and there “is always a temptation in criminal cases to let the end justify the means, but as guardians of the Constitution, we must resist that temptation.”
     “The witness tampering warrants permitted the state to search for anything – from child pornography to medical records to consumer information to tax returns. In short, they permitted the species of wide-ranging, exploratory searches the framers intended to prohibit,” the judge wrote.
     The Delaware Supreme Court reversed Wheeler’s conviction and remanded the case.

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