Unjust System Compounds Terrible Tragedy

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The 90-year sentence imposed on Robert Thomas Flibotte for collecting child porn on his computer offers nothing but tragedy and heartache for this agonized community.

Superior Court Judge Peter Cahill said he would have sentenced Flibotte to probation, except for the mandatory minimum sentences prescribed by the Arizona Legislature.

The law sets forth the minimum sentence for each count — and requires the judge to specify that the terms must be served one after the other.

As though to underscore the absurdity of the system, Payson Police last week issued a required notice that a man who has finished his fourth, brief prison term for actually sexually assaulting children will be living temporarily in a Payson neighborhood. The notices issued by the police says a jury convicted Paul Scott Sandefer of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl in 1989, then another jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting a 4-year-old girl and a 6-year-old girl in 1992. Incredibly enough, he took a plea deal in 2004 in Washington State in a fourth case — this one a 6-year-old girl. Yet somehow, he’s back on the street.

Can this be justice? Four convictions for actually sexually assaulting children in 20 years and he’s on the street, but Flibotte faces a mandatory 90-year sentence?

Of course, the abuse of discretion by judges and prosecutors in cases like Sandefer’s caused the frenzy of mandatory sentencing laws that have now ensnared Flibotte.

The terrible contradictions run throughout the criminal justice system, where mandatory sentences have turned the whole criminal justice system into a bizarre “let’s make a deal” episode — with public safety as the punchline. The overwhelming majority of criminal cases end with a plea bargain, in part because few defendants will risk the mandatory sentence that follows a conviction.

Clearly, Flibotte should have made a deal.

And that’s what makes the awful tragedy Shakespearean in its scope. Flibotte was a pillar of this community for many years and a devoted family man. He has contributed to good causes all his life and retains the deep love and loyalty of many people in this community.

Perhaps he could not give up that respect and admiration by seeking a plea bargain and admitting what he had done. Perhaps he would rather serve out the whole rest of his life in a cell, than to admit to all those people who believed in him that those dark thoughts, those awful urges compelled him to collect those images in the thousands. Even to the end, he clung to his wildly implausible story — rather than admit to that compulsion.

Certainly, the prosecutor was right in observing that child pornography is never a victimless crime. Children cannot be compelled to pose for such unthinkable images without suffering damage. The consumers of those images become party to that damage, even if they never act out those terrible fantasies with a real child.

And so, the case offers one layer after another of damage and despair.

Our heart breaks for the family, the loyal friends.

Just as it does for the children in those photographs.

But more than this, we are heartbroken for Flibotte himself. Not because we think him innocent, but because it is harrowing to realize that such dark needs can exist in even such a good man.

And if that is not enough, we must somehow confront this final, bitter paradox .

In our desperate effort to protect those innocent children, we have somehow fashioned a system that will impose a 90-year sentence on the man with images on his computer and yet release the man with four convictions on his record.

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