Can a man be put in jail for what he's thinking?
Before you answer, you should know that what the man in question was thinking is about as repugnant as it gets.
Like child pornography. Twenty-two-year-old Brian Dalton, a Columbus, Ohio, man, was convicted in 1998 of possessing sexually explicit photographs. He served a few months before being released on probation. And there the matter might have ended, except for what his probation officer found during a routine search of Dalton's home. Namely, Dalton's personal diary, which contained a 14-page story about three kids, ages 10 and 11, who are imprisoned, tortured and molested.
The story was wholly fictitious, the product of a diseased imagination. Yet it was said to be so vivid and vile that grand jurors who indicted Dalton asked a detective to stop reading from the diary after only two pages. Dalton wrote the tale for his personal use; there's no evidence he ever planned to disseminate it.
Not that this mattered when he was tried earlier this month under a state law allowing the prosecution of those found in possession of any pornographic material involving children. In other words, not just photos of real kids, but written fantasies, drawings, even, conceivably, computer-generated images, of children who do not exist. Under a plea bargain, Dalton will spend almost nine years in jail.
And that, friends and neighbors, is simply, frighteningly, wrong.
If you disagree, well, I can certainly understand. It's sickening to contemplate sympathy for a man like Dalton. But sympathy isn't the point. Dalton isn't even the point. Rather, the point is that what just happened in Ohio represents a clear and present danger to the rights you and I enjoy as U.S. citizens.
Funny thing about those rights. They are so much a part of us that we take them for granted. Indeed, sometimes our attitude toward them is downright cavalier especially when we're talking about them in the context of odious others. It's hard to imagine, for instance, that many of us would countenance a government attempt to decide what we, personally, were allowed to see, say or think.
But some would willingly allow the same intrusion upon others the Klansman, the rapper, the flag burner, the child pornographer because we find them and their beliefs abhorrent. In allowing that intrusion, such people seldom see that they are betrayed by their own revulsion, induced to make a narrow argument and miss its broad implication:
If government is allowed to do it to "them," what stops government from doing it to you?
As a fan of the written word and, not incidentally, as someone who makes his living from it I find what just happened in the Buckeye State chilling. Under this broadly written statute, a serious writer who explores the subject of child pornography could be subject to the same fate that befell Dalton.
And how's this for paradox: the guy got probation after being convicted of possessing pornographic photos of real children. He's looking at almost nine years for writing private thoughts about fictitious ones.
No one would argue that the government doesn't have compelling reasons to keep tabs on Brian Dalton. He deserves punishment for his original crime. And treatment for his sickness. Children must be protected from him. But those goals could be accomplished without the constitutionally dubious means the state of Ohio has chosen.
Dalton's attorney, Isabella Dixon, says she may try to withdraw his guilty plea. He accepted the plea bargain, she has said, only because he "felt it was in his best interest at the time.' So far, she has declined to comment on her role in that decision.
So there the matter sits. I won't ask you to feel sorry for Dalton. I sure don't. But I will ask you to ponder the fact that there's nothing preordained about the rights we take for granted. That they can be nibbled away until they are gone.
And if you doubt that, you might want to consider again that question: Can a man be put in jail for what he's thinking?
He already has.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.