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SC law can let criminals get away with sexually explicit material

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When it comes to catching online predators, prosecutors are bound by state law, but some say that law is too narrow.

Investigators say these predators produce and collect child porn and can even sexually assault children.

In order for a predator to be charged with a crime, there are very specific charges.

"That can be a roadblock," said Assistant Attorney General Bethany Miles. "It's that gut instinct when you see it you think, that's child pornography but it doesn't meet the statute and we can't charge with that."

Miles says the law can sometimes let criminals get away with sexually explicit material.

"She can even be nude -- she can be bent over, she can be in lingerie. She can have her hands strategically placed where it's not sexual activity, but if a reasonable person would see it you'd think it was child pornography," said Miles. "It can even be classified as that under federal statute, but in South Carolina that's not what the law currently says."

Mark Ashley, a former high-ranking Fort Jackson soldier, was charged in 2011 with criminal solicitation of a minor. Investigators say he used his Army-issued phone to communicate with under-aged girls through online chats and text messages.

"Over a period of time, including on Christmas and Christmas Eve when he was with his family, he was sending text messages with this little girl wanting to engage in sexual activity," said investigator Lucinda McKellar.

He asked an out-of-state 13-year-old girl to send him nude photos. She complied, but the photo did not get Ashley in trouble.

"We couldn't charge him for asking that little girl to make that picture or receiving that picture. We were able to charge him with the solicitation," said McKellar.

That loophole is what state Rep. Ralph Kennedy wants closed with his new bill.

"Right now, a pedophile or someone else who'd be exploiting children can actually have nude pictures or children in a sexually explicit state and it's not prosecutable under the current South Carolina statute," said Kennedy. "And this would change all that."

Ashley was eventually court-martialed, followed by a dishonorable discharge. He's serving an 8 year sentence.

"In 8 years, he can move on with a normal life and this little girl has to live with whatever happened to her for the rest of hers," said McKellar. "The sentences sometimes don't really necessarily fit what their victims are going to have to deal with on the back end."

Kennedy also wants to increase the penalty for second degree sexual exploitation of a minor from 10 to 15 years.

"There's always been a battle between good and evil," said Kennedy. "We want to be on the side of good in protecting our children."

So everyone has a part to play in making the Internet safer for children: lawmakers, parents, and the children.

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