What Are Christopher Zoukis' Criminal Charges?
In an effort to ensure the correct information is conveyed, Christopher Zoukis presents the facts, circumstances, the context and the impact of the criminal convictions that brought him to prison. Official sources have also been provided to verify every assertion made.
By Christopher Zoukis
As my prisoner advocate and publication efforts have increased in visibility, so too have questions concerning what brought me to prison in the first place. These questions deserve an open, honest and straightforward answer.
This information is presented to set the record straight, so readers no longer have to guess as to my criminal past or jump to any conclusions. If any reader has questions, I'm more than willing to answer them.
In 2004, at age 18, I was charged with indecent liberties with a minor. This was the result of me having sex with an underage girl from my school. After pleading guilty, I was sentenced to a period of probation starting in 2006.
During a search of my parents' house, where I was living, my probation officer seized a laptop computer that I used and found underage pornography on it. For this criminal act my term of probation was revoked, I went back in front of a state court judge who revoked my probation, and I was sentenced to 15 to 18 months in the North Carolina Department of Corrections. Information about this can be found at the North Carolina Department of Corrections' website and at the North Carolina Department of Justice's website.
On the final day of my state prison sentence I was called to the sergeant's office and detained. The following day I was transferred to another prison where I was again arrested, this time by the U.S. Marshals Service for possession of child pornography. After 11 months of court proceedings, I was sentenced to 151 months in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a common sentence for this offense.
I will be released from federal custody in late 2018. I will have served over 12 continual years in prison.
The facts of my case are not pleasant, but I accept full responsibility for my actions and the consequences for them. Due to some misinformation put forward by uninformed commenters on my articles, I felt it best to explain so my readers can have a better understanding of exactly what I've been convicted of and the circumstances surrounding these convictions.
To start, indecent liberties with a minor is a charge that means that someone (in this case, myself) took indecent liberties with someone under the age of 18. This does not mean child molestation, forcible rape or anything of the like. It is a somewhat "lesser" charge – in my case due to the relations being consensual and the circumstances of the situation.
This means that I engaged in conduct which was indecent (having sex) and doing so with a minor (a girl from my school).
Now to the specifics of the criminal conviction. While a senior in high school I attended a party at a friend's house. This party included a few friends and myself. All of us were under the influence. During the party, the victim in the case and myself left the party and went outside to smoke a cigarette. We did so at my Jeep. While there we flirted and decided to have sex. After she took off her clothes and climbed into the car, I followed suit. We then had consensual sex in the car and returned back to the party together. There we continued to party.
After leaving the party separately due to having come to the party separately, things get a bit more imprecise due to me having to rely on hearsay from mutual friends and others present, along with an element of court filings (which don't provide much clarity). It appears as though she got in trouble for going to the party (and perhaps for being under the influence of alcohol and illegal substances). Presumably she explained she was at the party, and had conducted herself the way she had because of me, and the police were called. While I was in contact with the police shortly thereafter, the charges were not filed until several months after the event. This was due to a prolonged investigation which involved discussions with the complainant and her parents, myself and my parents, court investigators and the prosecutor and the attorneys. It also took quite some time for the police to finally decide to file formal charges.
Online there has also been discussion as to the age of the victim and myself in the case. This discussion started due to me not disclosing my criminal charges in my Huffington Post article, Growing Up In Prison: What I've Learned During My Eight Years of Incarceration. So please allow me to address this clearly and in a straightforward manner.
While the girl in the case had previously told me that she was 16 years old (which I believed since she hung out with the crew that I did – a group who generally hung around at each other's houses and got high), after the police got involved I learned that she was 13. I did not know this from the start (I had moved to rural North Carolina a year or so prior after several months in a drug rehabilitation center). For most of the time I knew the girl I thought that she was 16; a belief supported by associating with the girl and our collective group of friends for a number of months, both of which groups asserted she was 16. At least in my experience, in high school it is common for freshmen through seniors to associate with one another. On the date that the incident occurred, I had been 18 years old for 18 or 19 days.
As mentioned above, at the end of my probation violation sentence, I was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and charged with possession of child pornography and one count of distribution/receipt of child pornography. This latter charge was due to my computer having the ability to share these illegal images, not that I had engaged in any sort of distribution of the materials.
This illegal pornography charge constituted the conduct giving rise to the violation of my state probation. So, to be clear, I did not get out of prison and engage in further criminal conduct. The offenses at issue took place before I went to prison in the first place. The U.S. Department of Justice chose to hold the charges until the final day of my state sentence, and, as such, then having a "prior" state conviction, I was sentenced under recidivist statutes and given 151 months in federal prison.
This amount of time, when discussed, often raises eyebrows. After all, why would someone receive so much time for looking at underage pornography online? This is due to severe federal sentencing statutes and policies regarding all forms of child pornography.
While the sentencing range for possession of child pornography is 0 to 20 years, with a prior conviction this is raised to 10 to 20 years. And for receipt/distribution of child pornography, the sentencing ranges are five to 20 years, with a prior sexual conviction this is raised to 15 to 40 years. These prior conviction enhancements are meant to punish those who commit a sex offense, get out of prison, and then commit another.
In my case, even though I had not been released from custody since the commencement of my state sentence, the state sentence qualified as a prior conviction for sentencing purposes.
In 2010, the average federal sentencing guideline minimum for possession of child pornography was 117.5 months (for those with no prior convictions). It should be noted that if this case had been prosecuted at the state level, my guideline range would have been 5-6 months for the possession charge, and 20-25 months for the receipt/distribution charge.
The other reason for so much time is that almost all federal child porn defendants receive all of the same sentencing enhancements for conduct that is virtually inherent in the offense. For example, the outdated policies punish the use of a computer with a 2-level enhancement. Possession of any images of someone under the age of 12 results in another 2-level enhancement. Having more than 300 images is an additional 4-level enhancement and having more than 600 pictures is a 5-level enhancement. Possessing any images being perceived as having a "violent" theme, under an expansive definition that can include any intercourse with a minor, results in another 4-level enhancement.
Because all offenders generally receive the same enhancements, this takes away the individuality of the sentencing process. So, an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old who is downloading illegal pornography from his room in his parents' house generally receives the same sentencing enhancements as a 50-year-old married man who engages in this sort of conduct. This has led the United States Sentencing Commission (which makes recommendations to Congress concerning federal sentencing statutes) to recommend a total overhaul of the sentencing statutes.
You can read the U.S. Sentencing Commission's "Federal Child Pornography Offenses" report by clicking here. There they report, "[t]he current guideline produces overly severe sentencing ranges for some offenders, unduly lenient ranges for other offenders, and widespread inconsistent application."
When people hear about child pornography they often jump to the worst conclusions since they just don't have a lot to base their beliefs upon. With that in mind, please allow me to explain the circumstances.
When I was a senior in high school I had a laptop, which I used as most teenagers did at the time to download music, movies and pornography from peer-to-peer websites like Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa. These free peer-to-peer download services allowed members of the general public to freely download materials from one another.
While downloading music and other media, I also downloaded pornography, including some images of under-aged pornography. The majority of this pornography was of people around my age, albeit underage. Due to the way these download services worked, the user can't see what they are downloading until they do so. so it's not uncommon for someone to type in a term and simply download whatever comes up, then to go through it and delete whatever they don't want. This often resulted in peer-to-peer users downloading a lot of stuff they simply didn't want (e.g., corrupt music files, the wrong song, or something completely different from what they are looking for). This is the case because the file names are often very long, confusing, and not accurate. This is done to pack in as many keywords as possible so that the files will trigger as many search results as possible.
The reason for the discussion on how these services work is because of the content of the materials on my computer. Inevitably, people who download files from peer-to-peer services download material that they don't intend to obtain. In my case, while I was attempting to download pornography of those around my age, there were also files of those older and younger than me.
In hindsight, I can say that I probably at least looked at whatever was downloaded at some point in time. When my computer was seized, the computer had been connected to such a service and was freely downloading materials. As such, I received enhancements for some images that included subjects younger than what I was intending to download.
To make a long story short, the federal possession of child pornography charge occurred due to me downloading underage pornography from free peer-to-peer services like Napster. I did not know any of the victims in the photographs and I did not pay for any of this content. I also did not have any contact with any communities of people who traded in such materials.
State Misdemeanor Charges
I should mention here that I have also been convicted of a few misdemeanors, none of which resulted in prison time. If my recollection is correct, I received suspended sentences for all of them pending clear conduct.
When I was a sentenced for the indecent liberties with a minor offense, I was also sentenced to several other charges. These were all adjudicated on the same day and by the same judge. These consisted of driving after consuming, possession of a malt beverage by someone under the age of 19, communicating threats (to a teammate on my high school soccer team, with no actual violence involved), and a larceny offense (for stealing beer).
All of these instances occurred during the same period when I was charged with the more pertinent state offense. They were all part of a toxic lifestyle which revolved around drinking and getting high.
The actions I've discussed here are plainly deplorable and there is no excuse that will suffice. There is nothing to mitigate my guilt, or the pain and hurt that I have caused others –the victim and my parents included. There is nothing that I will ever be able to do to undo my horrible actions or make complete amends for my crimes, that much is certain. Also certain is my unconditional acceptance of responsibility for the wrongful acts that I have engaged in. I pleaded guilty for a reason.
All of these criminal acts occurred either while I was a senior in high school or shortly thereafter. At the time I was a hopeless drug addict and alcoholic and I only had toxic relationships. I consistently chose to go down a dark, dangerous, and damning path. The criminal convictions that came in the wake of these actions were justified. I deserved to go to prison to be punished and atone for my wrongs.
Once my probation was revoked and I was sentenced to time in state prison, I had a chance to dry out, allow the fog of substance abuse to recede, and grow up. There is nothing quite like having to fight to protect everything from your commissary purchases to the food on your tray. It makes you grow up in a hurry, which I did.
Fast forward through being arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and 11 months of legal proceedings, and I was sentenced to 151 months of incarceration in a federal prison. My world was crushed. I deserved to go to prison, but the amount of time for looking at illegal pornography online was more than shocking, it was debilitating. After I decided not to kill myself, I slowly started picking up the pieces of my life, albeit in federal prison.
Thus far, I've served nine years of my life in prison, from the age of 20 until now at 29. I'll be 32 when released. For the most part, I've ruined my life through my actions. I accept that and there is nothing that I can do to undo what I have done, to the people that I hurt, or the damage I have done. But there is some hope through education and rehabilitation, and that is the path that I've chosen.
During my nine years of incarceration, I have taken it upon myself to seek treatment for my drug and alcohol addiction, my criminal thinking, and the sexual issues which led me to look at underage pornography. This treatment has included everything from individual therapy to group therapy to classroom seminars taught by treatment professionals to even finding and reading self-help books on all of these topics. I even engaged in sex-related therapy prior to my incarceration, while I was on state probation. I have done everything in my power to treat and fix what is wrong with me. This has been my decision, I was not forced to engage in any of this and I was not provided with any good time credits for doing so.
I have also gone to extreme lengths to see that my education is continued so that I have a hope of securing a quality job and exiting the criminal world once and for all upon my release from custody. This education has included finishing high school via correspondence, earning a GED in state prison, earning a number of legal and religious certifications, and now pursuing a bachelor's degree. With the exception of the GED that I earned in state prison, I did all of this on my own, via correspondence study. Except for the GED, I paid for everything on my own (and with my parent's support) and I received no time credits for doing so. You can learn more about my education and other involvements on the Resumé and Published Works page of this website.
My hope these days is to strive for normalcy. I want to be known as a reformed man, a good man, if that is possible. I want to live a normal life and I want to leave my criminal past in the past. Unfortunately, when this is all said and done, I will have lost 12 years of my life to prison – the vast majority of my 20s and some of my 30s. That can't be undone, and it probably shouldn't be, because I do deserve to be punished for my crimes.
If there is one point that I could leave you with it would be this: I have done the crime, I am paying through the time, and I have taken all available measures to make amends, fix what is wrong with me, and plan for the future so I can leave prison and never return. While some will continue to mischaracterize my actions, I will always have the scarlet letter of being a felon and a sex offender for the actions I engaged in over 10 years ago. I have not gone back to a life of crime since, even though I've been surrounded by hardened career criminals.
While I certainly don't deserve forgiveness for my deplorable actions, I think I've earned a certain modicum of peace due to the lengths I've gone to make amends, pay for my sins, participate in treatment, and seek an education that will help me become an employed, law-abiding citizen upon my release from custody in 2018. I hope this can give those who might question me and my motives some level of contentment. It's the best that I can do for all those that I have hurt, along with myself.