EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 21, 2012

N.H. Supreme Court upholds child porn convictions

By Jo-Anne MacKenzie
jmackenzie@eagletribune.com

---- — A former Timberlane Middle School teacher has lost his appeal of child pornography convictions before the state’s highest court.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that it upheld Scott Buatti’s convictions on possession of child pornography.

Buatti, who was sentenced in June 2011, to two to four years in state prison, had been free on bail pending his appeal. A jury deliberated just three hours in April 2011, before finding him guilty on 20 child pornography-related charges, 10 charges of possession of child pornography and 10 of attempting to posses child pornography.

In his appeal, Buatti argued the search warrant for his home computer was not supported by probable cause. He also argued the trial court erred in denying his motion for a directed verdict, in denying his motion to quash indictments and in its jury instructions.

But the state Supreme Court disagreed and affirmed his convictions.

Buatti was arrested in February 2008, put on administrative leave at Timberlane in April 2009, after he was indicted, then later resigned.

Buatti, 45, came to the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as one of 18 paid subscribers to a website containing child pornography. While Buatti denied being a subscriber during his trial, he had registered with his own email address and used his Newton, N.H., address when he paid $79.95 to join the site.

During his trial, Buatti acknowledged looking at adult pornography online, but denied ever knowingly looking at child pornography. He said viruses on his computer might have been to blame for the pornographic files found on it.

“I know that as I surfed around the net looking for adult pornography, there’s some weird stuff that pops up,” Buatti testified. “I may have seen child porn, but I did not look at it.”

But federal agents and members of a regional child pornography task force disagreed.

When they showed up at his home in February 2008, Buatti told them he had used his computer to view free and paid adult and child pornography for about two years, according to a federal agent’s testimony. He also acknowledged saving pornographic images and videos, some of children, to his computer’s hard drive, the agent said.

But he wouldn’t allow investigators to search his computer. They left to get a search warrant and, within about half an hour, more than 700 images or video files were deleted from the computer. Links to child pornography websites were in his list of “favorite” websites.

Buatti argued the agent’s report and the supporting affidavit, used to obtain a search warrant for his computer, were not supported by probable cause. But the high court disagreed.

Buatti argued he never confessed to viewing or downloading child pornography, although two federal agents testified he admitted as much to them. He also argued there was no allegation the children pictured in the photographs and videos were “real children,” and he had no opportunity to cross-examine the victims. The state Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s rulings in that regard, too.

Finally, Buatti argued the trial court erred in its instructions to jurors. That argument was based on the fact Buatti faced 20 charges — 10 for possession of child pornography, 10 for attempted possession.

During Buatti’s trial, jurors were told although he faced 20 charges, a single image or video accounted for two charges — one for possession, one of attempted possession.

Jurors were told if they convicted Buatti of all 20 charges, he would not be “doubly punished.” Both the defense and the state agreed jurors should not have been spoken to about sentencing during the criminal trial.

The state Supreme Court justices reviewed the juror instructions and concluded they “fairly covered the issues in this case.”

The prosecution wanted to see Buatti sentenced to five to 10 years in prison. But Rockingham Superior Court Judge Kenneth McHugh thought that was too much.

“I really think, in his heart, he is ashamed of what he has done,” McHugh said before sentencing. “He didn’t come clean in the trial. There were some evasive answers.”

In fact, during his trial, Buatti denied accessing any of the 700-plus files the state said were deleted from his computer between the time agents arrived at his home and their return with a search warrant, a period of less than 45 minutes.

“I did not clean the hard drive. I did not delete those files,” Buatti testified. “I did not go on the Internet.”

He also testified he didn’t know what a cookie or zip drive were, and had never been in an online chat room. He acknowledged he often searched online for adult pornography, but never child pornography.

“I have no interest in child pornography,” he said. “I wouldn’t pay for anything I thought was child pornography.”

In his closing arguments at trial, defense attorney Mark Sisti painted Buatti as an unwitting victim.

“He’s a novice computer user who browses around and hits adult sites and gets himself in a jam,” Sisti said. “There’s no question about that.”

But the prosecution painted quite a different picture.

Assistant county attorney Jerome Blanchard told the jury child pornography doesn’t just show up on someone’s computer.

“I have junk on my computer,” he said in his closing arguments. “I don’t have any child pornography on my computer. I’m 100 percent sure of that.”

The jury, after about three hours of deliberations, found Buatti guilty on all charges.

But Buatti had his supporters, too, including some parents whose children he had coached and former co-workers.

At his sentencing hearing, Mary Louise O’Sullivan, a Timberlane gym teacher who had worked with Buatti since 1989, spoke on his behalf.

“Scott is a wonderful man and a highly professional teacher,” she said. “His students, too, respect him and have learned a lot from him.”

County Attorney Jim Reams released the N.H. Supreme Court’s findings late yesterday afternoon.

Follow Jo-Anne MacKenzie on Twitter @ETNHEditor.