NEW ORLEANS -- Child pornography victims can recover money from people convicted of viewing their abuse without having to show a link between the crime and their injuries, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The decision conflicts with rulings by several other federal circuits, possibly setting the stage for a Supreme Court challenge.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a woman, identified as "Amy" in court documents, was entitled to restitution from Texas resident Doyle Randall Paroline and New Orleans resident Michael Wright, both of whom pleaded guilty in separate cases to possessing child pornography that included images of Amy.
Amy sought more than $3.3 million from Paroline to cover the cost of her lost income, attorneys' fees and psychological care. A federal judge rejected her request.
Amy also sought more than $3.3 million from Wright, who had images of Amy and at least 20 other identifiable children stored on his computer. A federal judge ruled Wright owed Amy more than $500,000.
Wright argued he didn't owe Amy any restitution because he didn't obtain the images until years after she was abused. He also said there wasn't any evidence that she knew he personally viewed the images.
Amy, now her early 20s and living in Pennsylvania, was a child when her uncle sexually abused her and widely circulated images of the abuse, according to court records. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children said it has found at least 35,000 images of Amy's abuse in more than 3,200 child pornography cases since 1998.
In at least 174 cases, Amy has been awarded restitution in amounts ranging from $100 to more than $3.5 million. James Marsh, one of her attorneys, said in January that she had collected more than $1.5 million.
Marsh said Amy's attorneys always believed the restitution law was "fairly direct, simple and unambiguous."
"Congress' intent has finally been recognized by the bold and decisive decision," he wrote in an email. "For Amy and the countless victims of this horrible crime, today is the day when the legal system finally delivered justice."
Nine of the 15 judges joined in the majority opinion written by Judge Emilio Garza. The opinion said a federal statute dictates that a child pornography victim be awarded restitution for the full amount of their losses in each defendant's case.
"Fears over excessive punishment are misplaced," Garza wrote. "... Ultimately, while the imposition of full restitution may appear harsh, it is not grossly disproportionate to the crime of receiving and possessing child pornography."
In a dissenting opinion, Judge W. Eugene Davis said he disagreed with most of the majority's analysis.
"No other circuit that has addressed this issue has adopted such a one size fits all rule," he wrote. "Other circuits have given the district courts discretion to assess the amount of the restitution the offender is ordered to pay."
Stanley Schneider, one of Paroline's attorneys, said they will ask the Supreme Court to review the ruling.