DOVER, Delaware — The former headmaster of an elite Delaware prep school founded by members of the du Pont family is challenging his child pornography conviction in court papers filed Monday.
Christopher Wheeler, 55, was sentenced to 50 years in prison earlier this year after being convicted on 25 counts of dealing in child pornography.
Wheeler is a former headmaster at Tower Hill school in Wilmington, whose graduates include DuPont Co. CEO Ellen Kullman, U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and television personality Dr. Oz.
Wheeler waived his right to a jury trial after a judge denied a defense motion to suppress evidence seized by police. The judge later found him guilty.
Wheeler's attorney, Thomas Foley, argues that authorities used possible witness tampering as a pretext to obtain warrants to search Wheeler's computers for child pornography, violating his constitutional protections from unreasonable searches and seizures.
"There is no 'Tower Hill Headmaster' exception to the 4th Amendment," Foley wrote, saying the warrants were essentially cut-and-paste copies of those typically used in child pornography cases.
In refusing to disallow the evidence, the trial judge showed an "open-ended" view of the state and federal constitutions that "should raise significant privacy concerns for every Delaware citizen, who in effect, now risk being subject to a technological "general warrant" for their computers and digital devices, whenever Delaware law enforcement, in search of a single scrap of digital information, can access our medical history, financial status, political and religious affiliations, employment history, sexual orientation, consumer habits, and a host of other data," Foley added.
Wheeler was arrested in October 2013 after police, prompted by allegations of child sexual abuse for which he was never charged, searched his home and office. Authorities purportedly were looking for evidence of Wheeler's communications with Pennsylvania brothers who, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University, contacted Wheeler about their alleged molestation several decades ago.
In reply to a letter from one of the brothers, Wheeler apologized for the pain he had caused, saying "I did those things."
"I'll wait to hear from you about further appropriate steps towards resolution and restitution," Wheeler added.
Foley argued that there is no evidence that the brothers ever threatened to go to the police, or that Wheeler ever tried to threaten or intimidate them. Instead, the parties may have been contemplating a civil resolution or a simple "heartfelt apology and atonement," he suggested.
"Rather, it was the state who invented the crimes of witness tampering, as the means to obtain their free admission ticket into Wheeler's computers," Foley wrote, adding that the case marked "Delaware's first ever computer forensic search for evidence of witness tampering. ..."
Foley also argued in his appeal that prosecutors presented no evidence that Wheeler viewed or downloaded any images of child pornography or even knew that they were being automatically cached to his computer from newsgroups to which he had subscribed.
Foley also noted that the computer containing images for which Wheeler was convicted had last been turned on 10 months before the Pennsylvania brothers communicated with him in July 2013, suggesting that authorities who began combing through its files should have immediately known that it would not contain any record of the correspondence.