Fourth Circuit Vacates Unreasonable Sentence in Child Pornography Case

U.S. v. Julian Zuk (No. 16-4727)

In this appeal, the government challenges as substantively unreasonable the sentence imposed by the district court on Julian Zuk. Zuk was indicted on seven counts for transmitting, receiving, and possessing child pornography. The undisputed evidence shows that before his arrest, Zuk amassed more than 13,800 photographs and more than 470 videos, a large proportion of which depicted the sadistic treatment of young children. He also communicated on a daily basis with a 16-year-old who was sexually abusing his 5-year-old cousin and even directed the 16- year-old to abuse the child in specific ways.

Pursuant to a plea agreement, Zuk pleaded guilty to one count of possessing child pornography, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2252A(a)(5)(B). Because the Sentencing Guidelines’ recommendation for Zuk’s relevant conduct substantially exceeded 240 months’ imprisonment, which was the maximum sentence for possession, the 240-month term became the Guidelines’ recommended sentence. Following a lengthy sentencing hearing during which Zuk’s recently diagnosed autism spectrum disorder was explained, the district court sentenced Zuk to time served of 26 months, reciting Zuk’s disorder as the “primary driver” behind the sentence.

On appeal, the government argues that the time-served sentence Zuk received is substantively unreasonable because it creates unwarranted sentence disparities and fails to provide just punishment or adequate deterrence in light of the seriousness of Zuk’s offense conduct. The government claims that Zuk is a pedophile, a sadist, and a recidivist who possessed more than 13,000 images of child pornography and who directed a 16-year-old boy’s sexual abuse of his five-year-old cousin for Zuk’s sexual gratification. The government further points out that Zuk’s time-served sentence is lower than the sentence advised by the Sentencing Guidelines for a child-pornography possession offense with no aggravating factors.

The Fourth Circuit notes that the downward variance in this case amounted to 214 months, approximately 90 percent of the sentence recommended by the Guidelines. Such an extensive variance, the Fourth Circuit concludes, is not justified by the consideration that the district court gave to the sentencing factors set forth in § 3553(a). Specifically, the Court agrees with the government’s argument that the district court gave undue weight to Zuk’s autism diagnosis, and there was not a demonstrable link between such diagnosis and Zuk’s alleged conduct. Bearing these considerations in mind, the Fourth Circuit vacates the district court’s sentence and remands for resentencing.


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