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Cancer patient gets seven-year sentence for child porn, remains free

TAMPA — A federal judge sentenced Michael D. Meister to seven years in prison Friday for collecting and sharing child porn but ruled the cancer patient can remain free while appealing the search that led to his conviction.

Prosecutor Amanda Kaiser objected, calling the sentence "unduly lenient," but the U.S. Attorney's Office does not intend to fight the judge's decision to extend Meister's release on bail.

U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara also ordered Meister, 58, to pay $25,000 in restitution to one of the pictured victims. It's unclear how much of that money will change hands. Meister says he's broke and his doctor says he's dying, but the judge accepted a $100-a-month payment plan, beginning Jan. 1.

Meister, according to his Moffitt Cancer Center oncologist, has high-risk multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. Though it is inactive, he is expected to relapse and eventually succumb to organ failure.

His prognosis and medical needs weighed heavily on the judge, as did descriptions of the crimes. Lazzara groused Thursday about having to look at disturbing images; among them, four depictions of bondage or rape of prepubescent children.

"There's no question the crimes this defendant committed were horrific," the judge said as he prepared to impose sentence. "All you have to do is look at the four photos in evidence that the government submitted to me to see how terrible the crimes were."

Meister, who wears an ankle monitor, has never been charged with inappropriate physical contact with a child.

But investigators found evidence that he had posed as a teen on MySpace and chatted with 48 "friends," some purporting to be 13 and 14, which was worrisome to prosecutor Kaiser, who has objected to Meister's continued release on bail.

In a brief interview with the Tampa Bay Times after sentencing, Meister said he doesn't go on MySpace anymore and that he hasn't used the site since 2007, when the porn was found.

He said he just wants to be left alone to enter a hospice, where he expects to die.

He linked his child porn collecting, in part, to his father's lack of involvement in his life and to his consumption of diet pills that clashed with bipolar disorder. His psychiatrist testified that the pills, combined with antidepressants, put him into an impulsive, hypersexual state.

"I know why I did what I did," Meister said.

He said he hoarded the images like a kid might hoard baseball cards, but that he put 90 percent of them in files and didn't look at them again.

The criminal case and the publicity surrounding it have estranged the Auburn-trained business consultant from family, friends, neighbors and former co-workers. In the void, alone with cancer, he said he has found comfort in faith.

Neither of his two adult sons nor his wife, who has filed for divorce, attended the hearings, which began Thursday and spilled over to Friday.

No one spoke on Meister's behalf, except for his psychiatrist, who testified by phone.

The psychiatrist, Curtis W. Cassidy, described an "amazing" transformation in Meister over the course of 40 therapy sessions since 2009. He said they had found the right medications to address his bipolar disorder.

"When first came to see me, he was pretty self-centered," Cassidy said. "He's grown into an altruistic, caring individual who's trying to make amends."

One opportunity for amends presented itself Thursday: Pinellas Park attorney Joe Saunders addressed the court on behalf of a 28-year-old victim whose images of child sexual abuse were among those discovered on Meister's computer. The victim's story of child porn's devastation on his life was published Sunday in the Times.

Saunders sought $86,000 in restitution. He said the victim can't afford counseling.

Judge Lazzara said he didn't think the 11th Circuit allows restitution for such victims. But Saunders returned Friday with a case in which it was permitted.

Rather than postpone the sentencing to accommodate a restitution hearing, Meister, through attorney Michael Rosen, agreed to pay $25,000 in victim restitution and $3,000 in attorney fees.

In the end, the judge found Meister's psychiatrist credible.

Lazzara said he wasn't suggesting that bipolar disorder excused criminal conduct, but that it explained the conduct.

He said he found it "disconcerting" that sentencing guidelines suggested a longer sentence for Meister than they did in 2004 for one of the creators of the porn. He was talking about Christopher Michael Rodriguez of Naples, ultimately sentenced to 20 years in Florida.

Guidelines for Meister initially topped out at close to 30 years.

The case began when Meister brought his computer into a repair shop in 2007 and technicians noticed file names suggesting child porn. Kenneth City police were called.

The laptop search is expected to be at the heart of Meister's appeal before the 11th Circuit. His attorney contends that it was not lawfully conducted.

Federal judges can grant release on appeal if persuaded that a defendant who poses no flight risk or danger to the community raises a substantial question of law on appeal that is likely to result in a reversal, new trial or no prison time.

Cancer patient gets seven-year sentence for child porn, remains free 12/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 20, 2013 10:44pm]
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