Porn Free

Why tough-talking county prosecutors freed a man facing 48 years in prison on a kiddie porn conviction

Observers say Virzi is a classic example of what's wrong with mandatory-sentencing laws. If Judge O'Melia had retained discretion over Virzi's sentence, the legal gymnastics required to free Virzi would never have been necessary.

Instead, the County Attorney's Office was forced to do an end run around the very laws it so strenuously lobbies for at the Arizona Legislature.

Court records show that, before Virzi's 1995 trial, Garcia offered him plea bargains of six months and then a year in jail, plus lifetime probation. Defendants in similar situations rarely reject such offers, especially when they're staring at decades behind bars if convicted.

Agents had captured Virzi on videotape mulling over child pornography for about an hour, then buying it with cash. End of story.

But Virzi chose to risk a trial that meant 48 years in prison without parole upon conviction.

His gamble failed.
After deliberating less than two hours on June 13, 1995, a jury convicted him of all charges.

Virzi later claimed his lead attorney, Arnold Weinstock, didn't inform him about Arizona's mandatory-time provisions until midway through the trial. Weinstock insists he'd warned Virzi of the possible consequences well before trial.

In any case, court records indicate he presented virtually no case on Virzi's behalf at trial, ensuring the swift conviction. That would become the linchpin of Hirsh's effort to rescue Virzi from life behind bars.

"I certainly don't agree that I provided an inferior defense," Weinstock says in a telephone interview from his office in Las Vegas, "but if Mr. Hirsh swung a better deal for Scott by blaming everything on me, that's fine, great."

What troubles several local attorneys contacted by New Times is that normally hard-line prosecutors treated a convicted sex criminal with such kid gloves.

"I'm concerned about the discretion that a Culbertson or a Romley has in these cases," says assistant Maricopa County public defender Chris Johns. "Who gets the breaks, the deals? My suspicion is it's not a lot of poor, black or Hispanic folks. There's a good chance that a line public defender would never even get to a Culbertson to bitch and moan. And if he did, the trial prosecutor probably would make him pay down the road for going over his head. But Bob Hirsh is Bob Hirsh."

Until his arrest, Scott Virzi was known as a gung-ho young investigator for the Nevada Gaming Control Commission.

Virzi's free fall baffled his wife, family, friends and colleagues. To them, he seemed the last person who would tumble into an abyss of sexual depravity. But it appeared he had.

In recent years, undercover agents have run countless stings designed to snag purveyors and purchasers of kiddie porn. By law, however, those agents must avoid "entrapping" suspects.

In overturning a Minnesota man's kiddie porn conviction in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court defined entrapment: "Law enforcement officials go too far when they implant in the mind of an innocent person the disposition to commit the alleged offense."

Virzi would have seemed hard-pressed to prove entrapment. Records show:
In late 1991, he responded in writing to a thinly veiled advertisement in Xcitement Magazine for child pornography. Unknown to Virzi, its author was a United States postal inspector involved in a national sting operation.

After months of correspondence, Virzi in mid-1992 wrote a letter to his new pen pal that had undercover agents scratching their heads. In it, Virzi said he was forwarding the correspondent's name to an FBI agent in Las Vegas, which he did.

Around that time, however, Virzi started trading letters with another potential source of kiddie porn. He didn't realize his new contact was a Phoenix-based postal agent, working a sting with Glendale police detectives.

On October 7, 1992, Virzi met his new contact at a Phoenix hotel. A damning undercover videotape revealed at trial how Virzi had methodically examined several photographs of prepubescent girls in pornographic poses, then expressed an interest in buying five. Virzi also carefully perused videotapes before selecting three for purchase--Incest, Volumes I to III.

The agent sold him the tapes and the photos for $50. Glendale police and postal inspectors arrested Virzi after the money changed hands.

Virzi threw his captors for a loop, informing them he was an investigator for the Nevada Gaming Control Commission. He explained he'd been involved in his own sting, of a Las Vegas businessman he suspected of being into kiddie porn. Virzi claimed he'd needed the explicit materials with which to lure the man.

But there was a serious glitch in his account. Virzi admitted his supervisors knew nothing about his kiddie porn activities involving the businessman.

The Glendale police booked Virzi into the county jail, where he spent 13 days before being released on bail to await trial.

Arizona law treats possessors of child pornography severely: If convicted, Virzi would face a longer prison term than do most convicted murderers.

His family hired Nevada attorney Arnold Weinstock to represent him.
Prosecuting the case would be JoAnn Garcia, a deputy county attorney known for her sound pretrial preparation and direct manner.

In May 1993, Garcia--with the approval of her supervisors--offered Virzi a favorable plea bargain: Serve six months in jail and be on lifetime probation in return for a guilty plea to "attempting" to possess the pornography.

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