Case Law Database

Cybercrime

Computer-related specific acts

• Production/distribution/ possession of child sexual abuse materials

Keywords

• Electronic Evidence
• Child online abuse
• Cooperation with the private sector

Participation in an organized criminal group

Offences

• Agreement to commit a serious crime (conspiracy)

Degree of Involvement

• Overt act in furtherance of agreement
  • Keywords:
  • United States v. Dylan Heatherly, No. 19-2424 (3d Cir. Dec. 11, 2020) and United States v. William Staples, No. 19-2932 (3d Cir. Dec. 11, 2020)

    Fact Summary

    The two defendants, William Staples and Dylan Heatherly, used a web conferencing software (Zoom) as a chat room space where they virtually met with others to view, request, receive, distribute, and otherwise facilitate the receipt and distribution of child sexual abuse material. Within Zoom, prerecorded child sexual abuse material was shared, as well as live streaming child sexual abuse. Particularly, one male user of the platform (A) “repeatedly live-streamed himself raping and sexual abusing his six-year-old nephew.” Other users of the platform, including the two defendants, encouraged A to rape and sexually abuse his nephew. Other members of the Zoom session even directed A to perpetrate specific types of child sexual abuse and sexual assault on the victim (a form of child sexual abuse to order). The defendants also requested child sexual abuse material from other users of the platform.

    William Staples was found guilty of conspiracy to advertise, receive/distribute, and aid and abet the receipt/distribution of child sexual abuse material. The other defendant, Dylan Heatherly, was found guilty of conspiracy to receive/distribute and aid and abet the receipt/distribution of child sexual abuse material. For their crimes, they were sentenced to 25 and 30 years' imprisonment, respectively.

    Cross-Cutting Issues

    Liability

    ... for

    • completed offence

    ... based on

    • criminal intention

    ... as involves

    • principal offender(s)
    • participant, facilitator, accessory

    Investigation Procedure

    Special investigative techniques

    • Special investigative techniques
    • Undercover operation(s)/ Assumed identities/ Infiltration

    International Cooperation

    Involved Countries

    Canada

    United States of America

    Measures

    • International law enforcement cooperation (including INTERPOL)

    Outline

    An undercover investigation of Zoom by a female Canadian law enforcement officer revealed that this web conferencing software was used as a chat room and video and live streaming space for child sexual abuse material. The Canadian law enforcement officer reached out to her contacts in the U.S. government to inform them of the illicit activity observed in this space. U.S. federal agents subsequently contacted the CEO of Zoom, who assisted them in their investigation of the suspected illicit activity occurring on the Zoom platform. One outcome of this cooperation is the case described below where two individuals were charged and convicted for their roles in the use of Zoom to facilitate child sexual abuse and exploitation.

    Electronic evidence was collected and introductes as evidence before court. Video clips depicting child sexual abuse and chat sessions from Zoom relating to child sexual abuse were introduced as evidence of conspiracy and production of child sexual abuse material. Child sexual abuse material that was found on the defendants’ digital devices was also introduced as evidence.

     

    Electronic Evidence

    • Electronic Evidence/Digital Evidence

    Procedural Information

    Legal System:
    Common Law
    Latest Court Ruling:
    Appellate Court
    Type of Proceeding:
    Criminal
    Accused were tried:
    together (single trial)
     
     
    Proceeding #1:
  • Stage:
    appeal
  • Official Case Reference:
    United States v. Dylan Heatherly, No. 19-2424 (3d Cir. Dec. 11, 2020) and United States v. William Staples, No. 19-2932 (3d Cir. Dec. 11, 2020)
  • Court

    Court Title

    United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

     

    Location

  • City/Town:
    Philadelphia
  • Province:
    Pennsylvania
  • • Criminal

    Description

    The two defendants appealed their sentencing, claiming, among other reasons, that the evidence introduced in court against them was highly prejudicial. The defendants had claimed that they were not interested in child sexual abuse material but wanted to watch other men masturbate on the platform. Child sexual abuse video clips and chat logs of the Zoom sessions and the child sexual abuse material found on the defendants’ devices were introduced as evidence in court to rebuke the defendants’ claims that they were not aware and/or did not enter the Zoom room for the purposes of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

    The introduction of the child sexual abuse video clips as evidence was a particular point of contention for the defendants. The introduction of the video clips as evidence was viewed as necessary to prove conspiracy to engage in child sexual abuse and exploitation by showing that the Zoom room served as a “haven” whereby individuals gathered to discuss and share child sexual abuse material. Specifically, the court held that:

    “the video clips helped to establish the culture that permeated the Zoom chats. That was an important part of proving that the participants were involved in such a unity of purpose and common undertaking that they had necessarily entered into an agreement that this type of material be received or distributed…The government’s attempt to verbalize what the defendants were watching may well have been inadequate to communicate the nature of the Zoom chats or whether the unity of purpose between these defendants was such that it suggested an implicit agreement to participate in these livestreams, as opposed to “merely” separately observing them.”

    The court ultimately ruled that risk of the prejudicial influence of this evidence on jurors was outweighed by the evidence being “highly probative of the conspiracy and the defendants’ awareness of what they were involved in.” Therefore, the court held that the District Court properly admitted the videos.

     
    Decision Date:
    11 December 2020

    Defendants / Respondents in the first instance

    Defendant:
    Dylan Heatherly
    Gender:
    Male
    Defendant:
    William Staples
    Gender:
    Male

    Charges / Claims / Decisions

    Defendant:
    Dylan Heatherly
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2) and 2252(b)(1)

    Charge details:

    Conspiracy to Receive or Distribute Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Guilty
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2) and 2252(b)(1)

    Charge details:

    Receipt or Distribution of Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Guilty
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. § 2251(d)

    Charge details:

    Conspiracy to Publish a Notice or Advertisement of Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Other
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. § 2251(d)

    Charge details:

    Publishing a Notice or Advertisement to Receive Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Acquittal
    Term of Imprisonment:
    25 years
    Defendant:
    William Staples
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2) and 2252(b)(1)

    Charge details:

    Conspiracy to Receive or Distribute Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Guilty
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. §§ 2252(a)(2) and 2252(b)(1)

    Charge details:

    Receipt or Distribution of Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Guilty
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. § 2251(d)

    Charge details:

    Conspiracy to Publish a Notice or Advertisement of Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Guilty
    Legislation / Statute / Code:

    18 U.S.C. § 2251(d)

    Charge details:

    Publishing a Notice or Advertisement to Receive Child Pornography

    Verdict:
    Acquittal
    Term of Imprisonment:
    30 years

    Court

    United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit