In ‘one-shot’ plea deal, Idaho man who denied having child pornography gets probation

After four-and-a-half years of delays and multiple charges, the Canyon County Prosecutor’s Office finally reached an agreement in the case of a Middleton man who was accused of possessing child pornography.

Third District Judge Matthew Roker upheld the terms of a plea agreement between the prosecutor’s office and 40-year-old Matthew Owens to place Owens — initially accused of possessing child porn — on supervised probation, after Owens pleaded guilty to two counts of injury to a child on the grounds that possessing the material injured children.

The other charges — 13 counts of possession of child pornography — were dismissed as a part of the plea agreement, court records showed.

Roker also admonished Owens — who said he didn’t know how the nearly 1,900 images ended up on his devices — telling the defendant that if he stepped out of line, he’d send him to prison.

“I will comply with all of my orders for sure,” Owens said in a brief statement during his sentencing last month. “I promise.”

While he pleaded guilty to the lesser charges, his public defender said Owens was “adamant” that he didn’t download the child pornography to his devices.

In September 2019, after an investigation by Idaho’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, or ICAC, Owens was arrested and charged with 10 counts of possession of sexually exploitative material of a child, the Statesman previously reported. The Task Force is a coalition of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

At the time, police said they located nearly 100 images of child pornography on Owens’ cellphone, the Idaho Press reported. Police wouldn’t search several other devices that they obtained that day until over three years later, in February 2023, causing prosecutors to charge him with additional counts of child pornography possession. Two of those charges were amended to injury to a child, court records showed.

Investigator says he found nearly 1,900 child porn images

The Canyon County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office led the investigation, with assistance from the Middleton Police Department and investigators from the Idaho Attorney General’s Office.

“One has to wonder why, after three-and-a-half years, the state sought to do more searching for contraband on defendant’s electronic devices,” Owens’ public defender, Lary Sisson, wrote in court fillings. “Why would the state need to search more devices and charge more crimes is a mystery to the defense unless the state wanted to delay the jury trial (in the prior case) for some unknown reason.”

Sisson declined to comment further for this story.

Chris Hardin, a forensic examiner and criminal investigator who is a part of ICAC, said he located 1,871 images of child pornography across several of Owens’ devices, including a laptop, several cellphones, external hard drives and microSD cards.

“These are just ones that I found, it’s not an account for every single image that was on the device,” Hardin said in court.

Owens will be on probation for the next 10 years, though what that probation looks like depends on his behavior. For at least two years, he’ll be placed on a sex offender supervision agreement, and if he complies, passes a polygraph and doesn’t have any violations, he can ask the court to place him on standard supervised probation.

After five years, Owens can ask to be placed on unsupervised probation, Roker said.

“I do impress upon the court and the defendant that while we are agreeable to probation, it’s a one-shot type (of) thing,” Canyon County Deputy Prosecutor Enrique Gutierrez said in court.

In issuing the probation, Roker did underlay a suspended prison sentence of 10 years, with two years fixed, meaning that if Owens violates his probation, he’ll have to spend at least two years in prison before he’s eligible for parole.

Owens won’t have to register as a sex offender, Joe Decker, a Canyon County spokesperson, told the Idaho Statesman by email Friday. This was a negotiated term of the plea agreement, Decker said, because Owens was living near a school and wouldn’t have been required to move even if he was on the registry.

“So, in exchange, we agreed to not require sex offender registration, and instead, he had to move away from the school and agree to a 50-year no-contact order prohibiting him from having contact with any minors,” Decker said.

There are two exceptions to the no-contact order allowing Owens to be in any public places, such as supermarkets or restaurants, to “fulfill his basic needs,” and he can be around minors who are related to him through blood or marriage as long as one of the parents consents and an adult over the age of 25 is present, Roker said in court.

The other parent can’t object to the contact, he added.

“I’m fully convinced that you were looking at child pornography on your computers and devices,” Roker told Owens during last month’s sentencing. “This is something that you need to understand as you go through your treatment and probation — you’re not gaining anything by failing to accept responsibility for your actions.”

Attorney says they ‘all have to learn to live’ with plea deal

Owens insisted throughout the case that he did not download images or place child porn on his devices, something his attorney talked about in court.

“My client was very concerned that these type(s) of items were found on devices within his possession,” Sisson said. “He was adamant that he does not condone this type of behavior — these type of images, the possession of them, the distribution of them, the creation of them.”

Owens told authorities that “hackers, spammers, malware and cybercrime” people were sending the unwanted child porn to his devices, and that the images weren’t viewable, Gutierrez said.

Hardin, the ICAC forensic specialist, said he didn’t find any virus on any of Owens’ devices.

Owens also denied viewing child pornography to an evaluator who spoke with him as part of the presentence investigation, Gutierrez said. Owens was “highly defensive” in speaking about his sexual behavior, and because of that, the evaluation was limited, he added.

“The amount of defensiveness and obfuscation by the defendant with the psychosexual evaluator is rather troubling to the state,” Gutierrez said.

Owens wasn’t making or distributing child pornography, the prosecutor acknowledged, but he “absolutely” provided the market for the people who do, Gutierrez said. He added that although the prosecution was confident it could have proved the charges against him in at trial, “mitigating factors,” including concerns about a laptop with evidence being left behind, led them to strike a plea deal.

Sisson said the psychosexual evaluation showed Owens was at a low risk of reoffending, and questioned whether the defense could truly get an unbiased jury “due to the nature of this case.” He added that they faced an “uphill battle.”

“We’ve reached an agreement that once again not everyone is happy with, but that we’ll all have to learn to live with it,” Sisson said.