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Journalist to be sentenced in porn case

An award-winning journalist will be sentenced after he pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving and trafficking child pornography on the Net.

An award-winning journalist today faces a sentencing hearing after he pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving and trafficking child pornography on the Net.

In July 1997, veteran radio reporter Larry Matthews was indicted on 15 counts of possessing the outlawed material. His attorneys, with support of media organizations, argued that Matthews obtained the material during a news investigation about the online trade of child pornography.

Despite Matthews's defense, he pleaded guilty--a strategy his attorneys hoped will help them beat U.S. District Court of Maryland Judge Alexander Williams's July 1998 ruling that Matthews couldn't use the First Amendment as a defense to the charges.

If the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the lower court's ruling suppressing Matthews's First Amendment defense, the journalist can then withdraw his conditional guilty plea and return to the lower court for trial, where he can present his whole story, his lawyers say.

Today Matthews's sentencing hearing is finally under way; it could last until Monday. He could face up to 15 years in prison and more than $250,000 in fines for each count against him.

Observers say the case carries wide First Amendment implications because the outcome could prevent journalists or anyone from researching illegal material on or off the Net, possibly stifling news investigations.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, National Public Radio, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association have filed legal briefs on Matthews's behalf, stating that he should have a right to present his defense, although they did not categorically defend his right to commit a crime.

But the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Maryland counters Matthews's defense that he was researching child porn--not collecting it--on grounds that the defense also could block the prosecution of pedophiles who have any journalism credentials.

In 1995, Matthews, who has worked as an editor for National Public Radio, produced a three-part series on the explosion of child porn on the Net for WTOP radio in Washington. In 1996 he continued his investigation, and even tipped off the FBI to one woman he said was peddling her kids on the Net, according to court briefs.

The 54-year-old journalist's goal was to sell a magazine article about children being prostituted on the Net and law enforcement's track record for dealing with the problem, his attorneys say.

During his invetigation, Matthews apparently stepped in the middle of a sting, and communicated with an FBI agent about the trade of child pornography.

Matthews is well-known for his undercover work. For example, he lived on the streets during a news investigation about the homeless, and he spent time with draft dodgers for a 12-part series about young men who fled to Canada during the Vietnam war.