Honesty has been Michael Wilson’s personal policy since police found pornographic images, including child pornography, on his computer last February.
Since then, he says he has not hesitated in telling the truth to his family, friends or anyone else who enters his home – that he has a 35-year-long addiction to pornography.
The theme of openness and honesty continued Wednesday as a judge sentenced him to prison on four counts of possession of child pornography in the Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court.
“I said I would be honest about my addiction, honest about what happened, and honest about what got me there,” Wilson, 47, told the court.
“This felony conviction – it’s a bit of a blessing in a way. If I had a choice to go back before this [case], but had to go back to the way I was, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.
With nearly a dozen of Wilson’s friends and family occupying the courtroom, Judge Michael McGinty sentenced Wilson to 20 years in prison, with all but three years and six months suspended.
Wilson, a former William & Mary research assistant in the Center for Conservation Biology, pleaded guilty to four counts of possession of child pornography Nov. 2. Wilson was put on administrative leave from his job with William & Mary after he was charged Feb. 19, and was later terminated.
Wilson appeared in court Wednesday wearing a light blue sweater and an ankle bracelet – evidence of his in-home incarceration – and embraced his wife for several minutes during a court recess.
Testimony from defense witnesses centered around Wilson’s decades-long struggle with pornography addiction and the steps he has taken for treatment and medication.
When asked by defense attorney Jason Anthony how he felt being in court Wednesday, he said he felt “shameful.”
While McGinty took all factors into consideration when deciding Wilson’s sentence, he said the most important factor was the crime itself, which he described as “not a victimless crime in any way.”
Wilson’s sentence will also include 20 years of supervised probation following his release from prison, all psychosexual evaluations ordered by probation and registration as a sex offender.
Following the sentencing, Wilson’s loved ones gathered tearfully in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Clicking through without control
Despite psychiatrist James Sellman’s testimony that Wilson is “definitely not” a pedophile, prosecutor Cathy Black said the children involved in child pornography are abused “because of people like him.”
“We are not here because he was looking at general pornography,” Black said. “He was looking at child pornography … downloading it and putting it on a thumb drive to bring to his work computer.”
Sellman, who has seen Wilson as a patient since July 2016 and has 43 years of practice experience, said Wilson’s social and interpersonal behavior became “isolative” as his pornography addiction intensified – the opposite of a typical pedophile’s behavior.
“His addiction to pornography has been almost entirely exclusively adult porn,” Sellman said.
Wilson described his addiction as clicking through images, links and web pages on the internet without control.
Wilson told the court he is a heterosexual man, but admitted he had seen “hundreds of thousands” of images of pornography involving two men, transgender individuals and multiple partners despite having no sexual interest.
The psychology of addiction
In court, Sellman described the changes in brain chemistry that occurs in pornography addicts, including a desensitization to stimuli and abnormal levels of dopamine in the brain.
The addiction accelerates dopamine levels in the brain, creating a response for seeking and searching “to the point it’s like a monster has taken over your body,” Sellman said.
Wilson told the court he has viewed “millions” of pornographic images over the span of his addiction.
“You’d just be clicking and clicking and clicking,” Wilson said. “People think it’s watching one video for an hour, but that’s not what it really is. It’s the number of places you go in an hour.”
“You have virtually no control in this addiction,” Sellman said. “You use in spite of the consequences, and without treatment, it’s an uncontrollable disorder.”
When Black asked whether an addict’s brain can ever fully revert to its original state, Sellman said there is “some restoration eventually,” but added that medication and therapy can help return the brain to a more normal state.
Wilson previously attended group therapy in Florida for sex addiction, but Sellman said pornography addiction differs from sex addiction.
Since Sellman first started seeing Wilson in July, they have worked to develop a treatment plan. Developing the plan has involved Wilson, his wife, and his family, he said. The plan includes treatment and medication regimens that replicate larger pornography addiction treatment programs, as well as a computer-free household.
A personal sentencing
Although the sentencing focused around Wilson, his mental health and personal history, his defense attorney, Anthony, also revealed some personal details about himself during Wilson’s testimony and the defense’s closing statement.
“I’ve told my family members many times that you’re the best attorney I’ve ever had because you have a connection to addiction yourself,” Wilson told Anthony while he testified.
Anthony used his own personal struggle with alcoholism as a platform in his closing statement to describe the gravity of Wilson’s addiction.
Anthony admitted to the court that even he did not understand Wilson’s addiction for the first six months he represented him.
“What I was shocked by was my lack of empathy toward Mike, despite the fact I’m an alcoholic,” Anthony said. “I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even get Mike until halfway through this case.”
Since he has represented Wilson, however, he has begun to understand the nature of the addiction, as well as Wilson’s family.
“This is a terrible crime. I don’t have to look at Mike to know he knows that. I don’t have to look behind me to know Mike’s mother is crying,” Anthony told the judge.
In her closing statement, Black argued Wilson had a choice in what he viewed, and he made a choice that objectified children.
Anthony told the court he agreed with Black’s statement, saying the images perpetuate an industry “that deals with unimaginable objectification of children.”
Anthony said he also did many things he was morally opposed to while he was drinking, adding that he believes the world is a better place with “Mike in it, not incarcerated.”
“Michael Wilson is an extraordinary man that did a very bad thing,” Anthony finished.
Fearing can be reached at email@example.com.