Editor’s Corner: Inside the Courtroom – The Dr. Dennis Hughes Hearing

WARNING: Some of the details I discuss in this article are graphic and some language may be offensive. Reader discretion is advised. I do not reveal these details lightly. The purpose is to analyze details of the case that had to be left out of articles for larger distribution. These are my opinions and observations and are not affiliated with Houston Community Newspapers and Media Group, Star Communications or 1013 Inc.

FederalCourthouseI didn’t even know there was a Federal Courthouse in Galveston, so when it was time for me to go to the Pre-Trial Hearing for Dr. Dennis Hughes, I had to do some searching for where to go.

Hughes had been arrested on Friday, June 5, 2015 for Federal Possession of Child Pornography.

Why “Federal?”

Because federal jurisdiction almost always applies when the Internet is used to commit a child pornography violation. And that happens a lot, unfortunately.

Hughes was escorted into the courtroom by a group of U.S. Marshal Gulf Coast Task Force members. He appeared unassuming; a stereotypical professor-type, clean cut and balding, except for his attire, which was an army-green prison-issue jumpsuit. A Marshal sat with Hughes during the proceedings, which created the impression that Hughes was very dangerous.

SealU.S. District Magistrate Judge John Froeschner entered the courtroom and Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri Zack was soon speaking to her first and only witness, FBI Special Agent (SA) Kelly Berry.

Berry testified that according to Hughes, his habit had been snowballing since the 1990’s, when he started looking at magazine ads and found himself attracted to adult women who were dressed to make them appear younger. By the time he was arrested, Hughes had been spending his nights online, looking at and downloading pornography that displayed pre-pubescent girls (around age 11 or 12) after his family was asleep.

This is the predictable course of pornography addiction. It starts off innocent enough, but the person starts needing something new and different. Sometimes, in the cases of adult porn addiction (and sometimes with children, but I won’t go there), people “graduate” from “just looking” to seeking out prostitutes or other folks who’ll do things with them that they have seen done in pornography. In rare cases, this can escalate into rape and other non-consensual acts.

Fortunately, it seems that Dr. Hughes has not been inappropriate with any real-life children. None of his pediatric patients or their parents, members of his Little League teams, the kids that he volunteered with at his children’s school nor his own children, have thus far reported any wrongdoing on Hughes’s part.

Some people reported that his behavior seemed “a little strange,” like him taking photos at the school even after the yearbook (for which he was taking the pics) had gone to print or insisting that he do full-body scans on his melanoma patients himself instead of taking the “usual” course of referring them to the Dermatology Dept. for the scans. However, this can also be explained as hindsight bias, in which people who now know that Hughes enjoyed child pornography interpret something benign as being sinister.

An aside…Hughes only spends about 20% of his time at work with patients. He is a Physician Scientist, which means most of his time is spent in a lab doing research. He is also a tenured professor. His specialty is the study of melanoma (skin cancer) and osteosarcoma, which is a type of cancer that starts in the bones and most frequently presents in children. When Hughes does see patients, they range in age from 6 months to 21 years.

But I digress…

The story of how Hughes was found out is a little complex.

The FBI was conducting an international crackdown on child pornography providers and users, and during February and March of this year, had been operating the servers of an “underground” website/forum which they had seized control of.

This website required users to purchase external software in order to gain access because the site masked Internet Protocol (IP) addresses so that users became “untraceable.” But since the FBI was operating the service, they were able to gather IP addresses of actual users. Hughes was one of those people.

The FBI subpoenaed Hughes’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) for his home address and obtained a search warrant, which they executed on June 5, in the presence of Hughes, his wife and his three children.

MugshotSA Berry testified as to the content of the files found on a thumb drive that Hughes had surrendered. She cited one example, a collection of 16 images named “ManFuckPreteenLatina,” which depicted a naked, pre-pubescent girl on a bed, first with a clothed man and then with a naked man, allowing the men to perform sexual acts on her. About 10GB, or 8,200 files, were found on that one thumb drive alone. Hughes’s computer was seized and the hard drive is being examined by a forensic team to determine if there are more files.

Hughes’s work computer was seized by UT/MD Anderson police before the search warrant was executed at his home. A cursory examination indicated that there were pornographic images of young girls on the hard drive, but a forensic exam must be performed to determine whether these images were actually downloaded at that location (which would add to the federal charges) or installed from a thumb drive or other external device, which would exempt those files from being included in the charges.

During cross-examination by the defense, it was established that Hughes had cooperated fully with law enforcement and turned over everything that was asked for. He admitted to having the files and even spoke to SA Berry about the waxing and waning of his habit.

While he claimed he had been too afraid to seek professional help because he thought he would be turned in to authorities, Hughes did say that he regularly confessed to his priest and that sometimes he would go months between “episodes” of looking at porn.

His triggers seemed to be anger and insomnia, and he found the dopamine rush he received from masturbating helpful to help him stay alert when it was time to go to work. Berry testified that it was her opinion that Hughes felt shame, guilt and remorse.

During SA Berry’s testimony, Hughes didn’t show much emotion at all. However, that was all about to change.

Defense Attorney Neal Davis called Hughes’s wife to the stand.*

Hughes lost it, and wept uncontrollably for a minute or two as his wife approached. He hung his head low and wiped the tears away with a tissue.

635694697743568182-dennis-hughesMrs. Hughes presented herself as incredibly strong in the face of the “shame” that her husband had brought her family, her church and her community. She was teary, but remained in control of herself until she was seated in the back of the courtroom after her testimony.

It was almost painful to watch this very conservatively dressed, Catholic woman testify to the events that had brought her to that point. Despite her shock at learning of her husband’s habits, she supported his pre-trial release and testified that, to her knowledge, he had not been inappropriate with any children in their lives. She said she would assist her husband with the conditions of his release if it was granted, and that she had already had their home Internet service disconnected.

Mrs. Hughes is a homemaker, and depends on her husband’s income. The prosecution tried to make a point of this and offered it as an explanation of Mrs. Hughes’s support of her husband.

Honestly, it is most likely a part of her support. Mrs. Hughes is a Notre Dame educated woman, but had not been employed since 2004, when she quit to raise her family. If her husband’s paychecks stopped coming, she would be in quite a pickle. It is unclear whether or not Hughes would continue receiving a salary if he was incarcerated. As a tenured professor, there is a strong likelihood that he would, but that is not guaranteed and is to be determined.

After she was finished testifying, Mrs. Hughes collapsed into the arms of her father, who was sitting in the back of the courtroom, and sobbed.

Zack and Judge Froeschner had a dialogue about Hughes’s release. It was apparent that His Honor was leaning toward granting the release, as long as Hughes followed the two pages’ worth of conditions during that time. Zack basically had no rebuttal…there was no indication that Hughes was a danger to others. He could be a danger to himself, but he had so far proven himself to have not crossed the line between fantasy and reality.

Judge Froeschner said that he didn’t see any danger that Hughes would pose to others if he were released. He said that Hughes had the support of his family and his community and would be closely monitored to make sure he was complying with all of the conditions set forth. Froeschner made it clear that he wanted to set a bond amount, and called a recess for the lawyers to work that out.

They agreed on $50,000. Hughes would be free soon.

Hughes was escorted out of the building by U.S. Marshals. Ultimately, it is up to them as to when to release Hughes, so he did not necessarily go home this day. However, if it wasn’t today, it will be soon.

Hughes will have to seek treatment for his addiction, stay away from schools and daycares, have “responsible adult supervision” when he is around children and refrain from any interface with the Internet. The conditions go on and on, but I won’t bore you (if I haven’t already).

If a plea bargain can not be agreed upon, Hughes will eventually go to trial. He is facing a minimum of 5 years in federal prison, with a maximum sentence of 20 years. His medical career is over. It is unclear if his marriage will survive this.

I left the courthouse feeling very sad because I knew this whole thing could have been prevented. It made me think of a former client who was labeled a sex offender for life because a few images of minors had been found on his computer. Of course, it is unknown if my client or Hughes would have escalated into actually hurting someone, but that doesn’t dampen the senselessness of it all.

The moral of the story is that if you or someone you know is dealing with pornography addiction, get help now. I don’t care if you’re Barack Obama – GET HELP. If you’re using the Internet to download videos or pictures of minors, you’re committing a FEDERAL OFFENSE. Even if it’s not minors you’re looking at, this escape is not worth losing your job, family and dignity over.

For more information about pornography addiction, click HERE. To find help for pornography addiction, click HERE and enter your ZIP code to find a helping professional near you.

Take care of yourselves out there.

*I am purposely not using the first names of Mrs. Hughes and the children to give some semblance of respect to their privacy.

To download supporting documents, click HERE (7 MB .pdf file).

2 responses to “Editor’s Corner: Inside the Courtroom – The Dr. Dennis Hughes Hearing

  1. You are incorrect that he never did anything inappropriate with “real life children” he was arrested and went to trial on two separate indecent exposure charges and was suspected in a third during his time in Ann Arbor Mi. Also his wife was not his wife at the time, and was well aware of his problems. He also promised to seek help then.

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