Lawyer argues Del. FF used child porn as PTSD coping mechanism

Former Wilmington Firefighter Joseph Leonetti Jr. was sentenced to five years in federal prison for possessing and distributing the images


Hannah Edelman
Dover Post, Del.

WILMINGTON, Del. — Former Wilmington firefighter Joseph Leonetti Jr. was sentenced to five years in federal prison Wednesday for possession and distribution of prepubescent child pornography.

The prison time is less than half of the federal mandatory minimum for similar crimes.

Unlike most child pornography cases — which still average prison sentences eight months longer than Leonetti's — the young age of those depicted increases the potential maximum sentence to 20 years in prison. Leonetti also faced potentially higher penalties for distributing the pornography on the file-sharing apps Dropbox and MEGA, as well as online chat groups through the messaging app Kik, which he deleted when police arrived to search his home last year.

Even without the data from Kik, Leonetti was found in possession of over 500 cached images, with access to thousands more, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Graham L. Robinson.

"The sentence is painful, and it should be for a crime of this nature," Wilmington defense attorney John P. Deckers said in an interview. "On the other hand, the judge believed that the guidelines were excessive in this particular case with this particular defendant."

U.S. District Judge Colm F. Connolly said that some of these guidelines were repetitive. For example, additional penalties are awarded for pornography depicting prepubescent children, and a separate, higher amount is added for content showing the sexual abuse of infants or toddlers.

Because of this overlap, Connolly decided that only the more severe of the two penalties would be considered in the case.

Deckers said that Leonetti, a former Wilmington Fire Department union president, used child pornography as "his outlet to numb." He attributed the behavior as a coping mechanism for post-traumatic stress disorder, which his client developed while working as a first responder.

"He doesn't get credit because he was a public servant," Deckers said of Leonetti after the trial. "But you can't ignore the fact that his crimes were directly linked to injuries that he sustained while serving you and me and while saving lives."

He referenced a fatal house fire in 2018, where Leonetti could not save a baby and his grandmother as one potential trigger. Instances like these, he said, caused Leonetti to have nightmares and flashbacks. In order to cope, he began to look at and distribute child pornography.

While there is a proven correlation between post-traumatic stress disorder and pornography addiction, Robinson said that Leonetti "took it a step further" by turning to specifically child pornography.

"We should expect more from our public servants," he argued. "For every life saved, there are a handful revictimized."

So far, about 30 victims in this case have been identified. Seven of them sent statements describing the harm that their abuse caused, and three parents wrote letters on their children's behalf.

Though Leonetti did not testify, he informed the court that he read each of the victims' letters and showed "true remorse," Connolly said — a fact which is "unusual" in child pornography cases.

"We want to treat people the same," Connolly said in reference to the federal sentencing standards. "But people aren't the same."

After the sentencing, Leonetti, his wife and other relatives were escorted out of the courthouse by the U.S. Marshal's Service. He will have up to 30 days on house arrest to get his affairs in order before his prison time begins.

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(c)2021 Dover Post, Del.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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