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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
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Exposing Child to HIV Justifies Long Sentence

(CN) - An HIV-positive man who videotaped his rape of the 4-year-old he babysat was properly sentenced to 120 years in federal prison, the 4th Circuit ruled.

Though the decision published Friday describes James Cobler's illness only as "a serious communicable disease" or as "a grave medical condition," The Northern Virginia Daily reported at Cobler's sentencing that he had been afflicted with HIV since birth.

The Winchester, Va., man is now 29 and serving out his time at the U.S. Penitentiary, Tucson, according to Bureau of Prison records. Cobler's young victim reportedly did not contract the illness.

Police had arrested Cobler in 2012 after a search of his home produced numerous images and video recordings depicting the sexual abuse of children.

In addition to saying that he shared the pornography using a peer-to-peer file-sharing network, Cobler also confessed to sexually molesting a 4-year-old boy on four occasions while babysitting him, and taking pictures and videos of these encounters.

He additionally admitted that he was aware of the possibility of transmitting his disease to the child during the sexual contact, the ruling states.

Cobler pleaded guilty to three counts of sexually exploiting a 4-year-old boy for the purpose of producing child pornography, one count of transporting child pornography, and one count of possessing child pornography.

A presentence report took into account that Cobler did not have any previous convictions, but said the severity of his offenses warranted an initial advisory guildelines term of life imprisonment.

None of the charges against Cobler warranted a sentence of life in prison, however, so U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski in Harrisonburg instead handed down the maximum sentences available for each count, resulting in a sentence of 120 years.

Urbanski declined to reduce the sentence in light of Cobler's short life expectancy. A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based appeals court likewise found that the sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The 26-page ruling cites the "shocking and vile conduct underlying these criminal convictions."

"Not only did Cobler possess large quantities of child pornography that he downloaded and shared on the Internet, fueling the public consumption of materials harmful to children, but he also created depictions of his own sexual exploitation, molestation, and abuse of a 4-year-old child," Judge Barbara Milano Keenan wrote for the court. "To make matters worse, Cobler was aware that his sexual contact with the child could have caused the child to contract Cobler's serious communicable disease."

Other courts have reached similar results in child-pornography cases in which sentences of life imprisonment were imposed, according to the ruling.

The only two contexts in which the Supreme Court has categorically deemed sentences unconstitutionally disproportionate are those involving life imprisonment without parole or the death sentence for a juvenile offender, the court found. Neither circumstance applies here.

"To the extent that this 28-year-old defendant argues that his developmental immaturity categorically requires that he be treated more leniently as a juvenile, we reject that argument at the outset given the complete lack of evidence in the record regarding any national consensus about how immature adults should be sentenced for child pornography crimes," Keenan wrote.

Cobler had challenged the trial court's characterization of his abuse of the 4-year-old as rape, but the appellate judges said Cobler's own admissions to the police supported this reference, according to the ruling.

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