Eliot Cutler listens to the prosecution during a hearing at the Hancock County Unified Criminal Court in Ellsworth on Thursday. Cutler pleaded guilty to four felony counts of possessing child pornography. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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The crimes that Eliot Cutler committed are egregious. As we wrote in March 2022: “Every image of child sex abuse is a depiction of a crime in progress.”

As part of a plea agreement, Cutler pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of possessing child pornography. According to court documents, he had nearly 84,000 pornographic images of children under 12 on the devices seized from his homes.

“For these images to be produced and shared, children were sexually abused. Perpetrators of this abuse, including those who produce, distribute, share and view the images, are committing heinous crimes that deserve severe punishment,” we wrote last March.

So, we, like many others, were shocked and outraged that Cutler will spend only nine months in jail for his crimes. We’re also outraged that a man of Cutler’s wealth will pay only $5,000 in fines. The money will go to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A contribution to the center makes sense, but the amount should be much larger.

We understand that Hancock County District Attorney Robert Granger faced difficult choices. Because of court backlogs, a case against Cutler could have taken years to prosecute. Cutler, a lawyer and two-time candidate for governor, who was endorsed by the Bangor Daily News editorial board, has the resources to potentially drag out any court proceedings. Appeals could have added more time before Cutler faced the potential of incarceration.

If there had been a trial, it was far from certain that Cutler would have been convicted or served any time in jail even with a seemingly strong case. If the judge had rejected the plea deal, Cutler would likely have remained free on bail and may have never served time in jail.

The plea deal calls for a sentence of four years in jail, with all but nine months suspended. Cutler would then serve six years on probation and have to register as a sex offender for life. In addition, his online activity will be restricted and monitored.

Granger said that the court backlog and Cutler’s age — he is currently 76 — were factors that persuaded him to accept the plea agreement.

The DA’s rationale to agree to a plea deal, while frustrating, isn’t entirely out of line with past cases.

Under state law, possession of child pornography is a Class C crime punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Based on 10 years’ worth of data, the average time to serve in a Maine jail for charges of possessing images of child sexual exploitation is six months, according to court documents filed in Ellsworth, BDN reporter Judy Harrison found.

Two recent Penobscot County cases involving prominent community members resulted in sentences similar to the one reached in Cutler’s plea agreement, Harrison reported.

The former finance director for the Bangor School Department, Alan Kochis, was sentenced in December 2019 to three years in prison with all but six months suspended, followed by two years of probation.

Well-known Brewer disc jockey Dana Wilson was sentenced in 2014 to 2½ years in prison with all but nine months suspended after he was convicted in a jury-waived trial of possessing child pornography.

Both men had far fewer images in their possession than Cutler.

“My opinion is that DA Granger is handling this difficult case in a responsible and fair-minded fashion,” long-time Penobscot County District Attorney R. Christopher Almy, who is not involved in the Cutler case, told Harrison. “Overloaded courts are hindering our ability to prosecute effectively.”

This court backlog, which leaves people with far fewer resources than Cutler in jail awaiting court dates, must be addressed more forcefully. Gov. Janet Mills and the Legislature have directed more funding to addressing the court backlog, but deeper changes are needed.

“When prosecutors are turning to a deal, despite a seemingly strong case, in order to ensure a prominent defendant sees some measure of accountability while they are still alive, there is clearly something wrong in a system that is constitutionally obligated to provide access to a fair and speedy trial,” we wrote last month. “This status quo is unacceptable both for victims seeking justice and for defendants who are presumed innocent until being found guilty.”

The outcome of the Eliot Cutler case is deeply dissatisfying. It also raises difficult and urgent questions about access to justice — for victims and defendants — appropriate punishment, and equal treatment under the law that will persist long after this case fades from the headlines.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...