January 27, 2021 522 PM
BREWSTER COUNTY — The criminal case against Tom Arthur, a Terlingua-area man whom the feds accused of running an obscene website focused on child sex abuse, meandered through the court system for more than a year. But when his trial finally started last week at a federal courthouse in Pecos, it didn’t take long for jurors to convict him.
The case was complex, drawing on federal obscenity laws from the 1930s. But one Marfa juror, who requested anonymity to discuss what he said was a disturbing trial, said there was “no doubt” among jurors that the “horrific” texts and drawings shown at trial were obscene and did not qualify for First Amendment protections.
Jury selection began on Tuesday — and by Thursday morning, both the defense and prosecution had rested their case. Jurors spent less than an hour deliberating the case before returning guilty verdicts on all nine charges.
The case against Arthur, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported, stemmed from an obscene website he started around 1996 and ran until 2019, when the FBI raided his home in Terlingua. The for-profit website was “dedicated to publishing writings that detail the sexual abuse of children, including the rape, torture, and murder of infants and toddlers,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas said in a news release last week after the verdict was announced.
Arthur faced three charges related to possessing and distributing obscene images through his website, five related to obscene texts, and a ninth charge for running a business focused on selling or distributing obscene materials. Users contributed content to his website, the name of which The Big Bend Sentinel is not printing, and it’s unclear how much of the site’s content Arthur produced.
Nonetheless, “all submissions for publication were reviewed and approved by Arthur before he posted them on the site,” according to the news release. The site was also Arthur’s “sole source of income for more than 20 years,” reportedly netting him up to $14,000 a month.
Arthur will face sentencing on the charges in April. At press time, it’s unclear if he will appeal. Arthur’s lead lawyer, Mark Bennett, declined to comment on the case.
The charges against Arthur were partially based on old obscenity laws — a detail that Bennett played up in court filings and in previous interviews with The Big Bend Sentinel.
The case against Arthur was baseless, he argued in one filing, because it was “Congress’s job to impose rules on [obscene content], not prosecutors.” In another filing, he compared Arthur’s trial to “hauling a small-town librarian before a jury of her peers to defend stocking her shelves with a copy of Lolita.”
Bennett also tried to enter expert testimony from Dr. David Ley, a clinical psychologist based in New Mexico. In written testimony, Dr. Ley stated that materials on Arthur’s website, “while often distasteful and highly uncomfortable for many readers, cannot be shown to lack serious scientific or literary or artistic value.” He also stated that users of the website “may experience decreased risk of contact offending against children.”
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, a federal court in Pecos decided that evidence wasn’t admissible in court. Prosecution ultimately called five witnesses, including Sandra, Arthur’s estranged wife, and an FBI agent who handled the case. Arthur did not testify at the trial, and his attorneys called no witnesses.
In the end, though, Bennett’s high-minded talk of obscenity and art did little to convince jurors. To qualify for First Amendment protections, objectionable content must be shown to have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,” according to federal law.
As jurors learned about Arthur’s website and the case against him, they agreed with prosecutors that the content did not have these redeeming qualities. Due to the nature of the case, The Big Bend Sentinel has not seen any of the obscene evidence presented against Arthur.
In agreeing to an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel on Monday, the anonymous Marfa juror said he decided to speak out because he did not want Big Bend residents to doubt the validity of the charges against Arthur or think that any of the content fell into a gray area.
“Your article from the week before made a very strong attempt at being fair to both sides,” that juror said. It was the same “presumption of innocence that we all entered into the beginning of the trial with.” But after the jury reviewed the obscene evidence, “there was no doubt amongst the jury that the charges were valid. It was guilty on all nine counts.”
That juror offered more context on the trial that he said had helped him and other jurors reach their unanimous verdict. For one, there was the size of the website and the scope of Arthur’s involvement.
The site hosted thousands of stories, according to evidence at the trial, as well as at least 840 paying subscribers. Arthur played an integral role in adding content to the site, including setting up dedicated author pages for the more than 2,000 contributors. He gave at least some of them email addresses. Those web users came from all over the country and world, and the website was hosted in the Netherlands, violating laws on transporting obscene content.
Arthur designed a search engine for the website, the juror said, which allowed users to use codewords to search for particular types of obscene content. The website had a large following, sometimes getting up to 100,000 unique hits a day and making profits of around $400,000 in 2002 alone, according to tax records presented at trial. And Arthur, from his home office in Terlingua, was in charge of the operation.
Arthur “spent two to three hours a day working on the website, and he’d have to handle all the admin stuff like forgotten passwords,” the juror said. “He had a job, and he worked on it every day.” Meanwhile, prosecutors also made a “very strong case there was no other income,” the juror said. “That [website] income is what paid for all the Terlingua property and developments.”
An FBI interview with Arthur from 2019 left the juror unsure about whether Arthur was aware of the scope of his crimes. But regardless, the jury didn’t exactly think he was acting like an innocent man prior to his arrest.
Arthur and his wife Sandra, who was granted immunity for her testimony, regularly changed business names, as — for example — banks found out about the nature of Arthur’s website and cut ties with him. Arthur had mailing addresses in other cities, which forwarded to Terlingua. At the trial, prosecutors showed images of damaged hard drives that Arthur or someone associated with him had tried to bury on his property.
“He was definitely hiding stuff,” the Marfa juror said. “I don’t know if he thought he was doing illegal things, but he was doing things to hide his name and location.”
The Big Bend Sentinel was unable to obtain full transcripts of closing arguments by press time. But the defense’s closing argument, according to the juror, included a last-ditch argument by Bennett that people who used the site might have been less likely to commit physical offenses, since they ostensibly had a fictional outlet for their urges.
“No evidence” was presented in trial to back up that assertion, the juror said. As he and other jurors went to deliberate, he wondered whether one obscene story had been actually fictional or based on real crimes.
“That was my final thought before I went into the jury room,” he said. “The website served a very evil purpose of attempting to normalize deviant behavior through these stories.”