Dressed in green prison garb, Jason Clark walked into the federal courtroom with his head down on Thursday, and he did not look at his old friends.
Clark had already pleaded guilty to taking pictures of his friends’ daughter naked and in sexually explicit positions while babysitting the 5-year-old in 2011, and he struggled to ask them for forgiveness. Sentenced to 24 years in prison Thursday, he said the punishment would allow him to absorb the depth of his “heinous” act.
“How could I ever take advantage of a child, a girl that was so vulnerable?” he asked, staring forward at US District Court Judge Richard G. Stearns.
“I recklessly took advantage of her innocence,” he added.
The child’s mother, father, other family members, and their friends sat quietly, some sobbing, others visibly trying to control their anger. They wanted him to serve the maximum prison sentence.
“He tricked everyone,” said the girl’s stepfather, a former roommate and friend of Clark.
“It happened in my own home,” he said.
Clark, 31, of Leicester, was sentenced to the 24-year prison term followed by 10 years of probation in a child pornography case that, all agreed, went beyond sharing pictures on a computer. He faced up to 30 years under sentencing guidelines in a plea agreement with prosecutors, though his lawyer, Brian E. Murphy, asked that he serve only 15.
Stearns said, in handing out the sentence, that the case had risen to the level of sexual abuse.
“I’m thinking particularly of the victim herself,” the judge said. “I think the gruesome facts and the details of the case speak for themselves.”
Clark was also charged in state court with sexual abuse, and is slated to be sentenced to a concurrent prison term in Hampden County later this month. But the punishment is not expected to rise to the 24-year sentence handed out in the federal court system.
“This case shows how the sexual abuse of children is often driven by the desire to feed the market for online child pornography,” said US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “People who produce, solicit, trade, and collect child pornography can cause a lifetime of pain for children and those closest to the young victims.”
Prosecutors said Thursday that Clark’s crimes showed that child pornography cases involve real children and people in their community.
“We all know it’s not just pictures, and a case like this brings it home,” said Assistant US Attorney Alex J. Grant.
Clark was a friend of the girl’s parents, and often stayed overnight at their home, in a room adjacent to the girl’s bedroom. He also babysat the girl.
Federal and state investigators were first alerted to Clark after Internet companies reported that someone in his name had posted child pornography images on a website, and was commenting on Web chats. In one of the chats, someone using Clark’s name reported, “I need to get another job where I can spend more time around kids . . . get more chances and pics.”
Law enforcement officials later searched his home and found thousands of child pornography images on his computer, and that he had sent e-mails containing child pornography. Some of the images were of the young girl, which investigators determined were taken with Clark’s cellphone camera.
In addressing Stearns, Clark said he recognized the “depth” of what he had done, the embarrassment to his family, and the harm to the young girl and her family.
His lawyer, Murphy, noted that he has cooperated in other child pornography investigations since his arrest, leading to the recent conviction of a man in Florida. That man, Anthony Hanifan, 38, could be sentenced to life in prison for taking pictures of a 2-year-old girl in his home.
Murphy said Clark had an “openness and desire to participate in sex offender treatment.”
But the family of Clark’s young victim said nothing could erase his crimes.
“He manipulated his way to be around my daughter, and he will strike again,” the girl’s father said.