By Emily Green, S.U. College of Law ‘20,
Katie McGraw, SUNY Buffalo School of Law ‘20,
and Alex Trunfio, S.U. College of Law ‘20
On May 23, 2018, trial began in Syracuse in the prosecution of Peter Farnum, a former Saratoga County Sheriff’s Deputy who had been indicted on one count of Possession of Child Pornography. Farnum, age 41, appeared in the chambers of Senior U.S. District Judge Norman A. Mordue with retained counsel Cheryl Coleman of Albany. Appearing for the Government was Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Giovannetti. Two weeks later, on June 5, 2018, Farnum was found guilty.
Investigation into Farnum’s activity on his family computer began with a report from his estranged wife, Courtney Seymour. Seymour and Farnum were married in January 2003 but separated in October 2015. They have three young sons for whom Farnum continued to care after their separation, while Seymour was at work. When Seymour accessed Farnum’s Windows user account on the family computer in April 2016, she discovered numerous folders containing adult pornography.
In the midst of the couple’s divorce and custody proceeding, in April 2017, Seymour took the hard drive and an external copy of it to an Albany computer-repair business to have it reviewed.
Seymour then sent the computer and hard drive to a computer forensic analyst in Montana. The results of the analyst’s examination revealed hundreds of images deleted from the hard drive. These images included pictures of underage females, approximately 7 to 8 years old, posing in a sexually explicit manner.
The Montana-based forensic examiner called the FBI, and the FBI eventually seized the hard drive, along with a separate external hard drive that the Albany computer repair business had used to copy files from the family computer. The FBI’s forensic examination of the hard drive revealed more than 1,500 files that were identified as known child pornography images.
Government’s Case at Trial
At trial the Government argued Farnum was physically in control of the computer on multiple occasions when child pornography videos were downloaded. To connect Farnum to the computer on those occasions, the Government relied on several events including the saving of computer games, the accessing of emails, and the running of Google searches. For example, the Government introduced evidence of instances when, minutes after Farnum saved a computer game he was playing, a child pornography video was downloaded.
To further establish Farnum’s connection with the computer, the Government adduced evidence of an instance when Farnum was sitting behind the computer when a child pornography image was downloaded. Specifically, the Government presented evidence that Farnum conducted a Google search to complete a police department research assignment minutes before the image was downloaded to the computer.
Finally, the Government presented evidence that the illegal images were not simply located in a downloads folder on the home computer but in sub-folders within that downloads folder.
Taking the stand in his defense, Farnum admitted to using the computer but vehemently denied possessing any child pornography.
In response to the Government’s evidence that the illegal images were contained in sub-folders, Farnum claimed to have no knowledge about the content of the sub-folders. However, the Government presented evidence that non-pornographic photographs of a woman with whom Farnum had engaged in an extramarital affair were also found in one of the sub-folders that contained the illegal images. Farnum replied that he did not know how the non-pornographic photographs ended up on the computer at all.
Farnum argued that Seymour used adult pornographic images as leverage to extort additional money and assets from him during the divorce. He also said he had suspicions about who had put child pornography on his computer.
Farnum’s attorney also argued the FBI’s investigation was faulty due to the number of technicians and experts who handled the computer and hard drive before it was sent to the FBI. Notably Farnum argued the chain of custody of the hard drive was broken when it was shipped through Federal Express to Montana to be examined by a private forensic analyst. The Government responded by arguing there was no evidence that the hard drive was tampered with while in transit.
Farnum’s expert witness, David Yarnell, called into question the integrity of the Government’s investigation and analysis of the hard drive. Yarnell testified there were inconsistencies between the evidence the Government claimed to have extracted from the hard drive and the evidence actually extracted from the hard drive.
The Government closed with a detailed, 90-minute presentation. Speaking in a controlled manner, Assistant U.S. Attorney Giovannetti walked the jury through each of the four elements of the charge, fitting all the pieces together. He then walked through each step of the chain of custody to remove any doubt that the computer had not been tampered with. Finally he attempted to refute the theory of a setup. For example, he pointed out that some of the pornography had been deleted and asked the jurors why a person who was framing her husband for possessing child pornography would delete it. Also, he asked why she would take the time to actually watch the videos after she downloaded them. He encouraged the jury to think logically.
Defense counsel closed with a fervent, 60-minute appeal. Speaking loudly, almost yelling, Coleman pointed out the flaws in the Government’s investigation and insinuated that it was targeting Farnum. Coleman turned around several times to point a finger at the prosecution and declare, “Shame on them!” She also argued that the computer’s chain of custody was “dripping” with reasonable doubt, and said several times that “God only knows what happened to that computer.” At one point, she said she was proud to represent Farnum. She reminded the jury that a human life was at stake and concluded with an emphasis on the prosecution’s burden.
The jury began its deliberations on the afternoon of Friday, June 1. Over the following three weekdays, they submitted four notes to Judge Mordue, requesting to have the testimony of four witnesses provided to them. They returned to the courtroom on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 5, with a verdict of guilty.
Farnum has been jailed pending sentencing, which is scheduled for October 15, 2018. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison. A post-trial motion to set aside the verdict is pending as of July 23, 2018.