BALTIMORE (AP) -- Journalist Larry Matthews downloaded images of children in sexually explicit situations and sent them to other people online - an act that he says was legitimate research for a story.
Not so, says a judge: Matthews possessed and distributed banned materials, and his actions violated federal law.
Matthews, who was scheduled to be sentenced Friday, is the first journalist to be prosecuted for accessing child pornography, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He and his lawyers plan to appeal.
A father of four, Matthews had done stories on the growing availability of child porn on the Internet in 1995 while working for radio station WTOP-AM in Washington. He said he wanted to expand on that series for magazine articles he planned to sell freelance. National Public Radio, where he now works as an editor, did not commission the work.
While online, Matthews communicated with a federal agent posing as a porn trader. In December 1996, an FBI task force on Internet child pornography searched Matthews' Silver Spring home and seized child-sex pictures from his computer.
Prosecutors have compared him with someone who buys cocaine to write a story on the drug trade.
A reporter "cannot go to an open-air drug market and buy crack cocaine himself", they said in court documents. "Nor can he decide to sell crack cocaine in order to develop information to write his story."
Matthews pleaded guilty in July to one count of receiving pornographic images on his computer and one count of transmitting child pornography. Each count brings up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
He had planned to argue at trial that he has a right to view such materials as part of legitimate research.
But U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. ruled that Matthews' status as a journalist did not give him license to break the law, and that he could not invoke the First Amendment in his defense.
Federal law passed in 1982 prohibits possession of child pornography, and the Supreme Court has upheld the law, ruling that even owning such material creates a market for exploiting children.