Openly gay, College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn was a progressive Democrat rising star – with over two decades of support for environmental causes, marriage equality, and civil rights – before he resigned upon his arrest on March 2nd, 2023, facing charges for collecting and reposting allegedly illegal sexually-explicit images of boys he’d found on the internet. Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisah Braveboy crafted indictments that threatened the former mayor with 360 years in prison. Wojahn has been locked up in the county jail since his arrest. Usually defendants caught simply possessing and sharing illegal internet images – most of which have circulated over years or decades and been shared hundreds of thousands of times – are granted bail. Wojahn had no criminal record, a spouse, and deep community ties, but Braveboy threatened Wojahn with extra charges if he sought bail – and then laid them anyway, keeping Wojahn incarcerated since his arrest.
Wojahn pleaded guilty in county court on August 2nd, in a plea deal that sets his sentence at 150 years, 120 of them suspended, resulting in 30 years of prison time. Under Maryland rules, Wojahn could apply for parole after serving a quarter of that sentence, some seven-and-a-half years, but with no certainty of release. In addition, Wojahn will face five years probation with conditions if and when he is released, must register as a level-two sex-offender for 25 years, and would be banned from work with minors.
Prince George County police raided the home Wojahn shares with his husband on February 28th after a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a private non-profit that funded by Congress, which maintains a database of explicit images depicting minors. Under a public/private surveillance infrastructure that’s taken shape since 9/11, major internet firms screen every social media post, email, and file upload for “hashes” corresponding to illegal content in the NCMEC’s database. Matches came up in January on a social media account on Kik under the name “skippy_md” that police linked to the mayor.
Authorities allege finding some 1,500 illegal images and videos and more than 200 instances of sharing material via apps, such as Kik and Telegram.
Wojahn waived his Miranda rights when he was arrested and acknowledged the Kik account in question was his. In his resignation letter he wrote, “I have cooperated fully, and will continue to cooperate, with law enforcement…. Many of you have already reached out with well wishes and thoughts, and I am eternally grateful. I am stepping away to deal with my own mental health.”
“Prosecutors regularly incentivize plea bargains and threaten the prospect of a ‘trial penalty’ of up to ten times as severe as their plea offer,” notes David Reutter on Criminallegalnews.org – a threat that has time and again lead to wrongful convictions. Cases involving illegal images give prosecutors extra leverage to multiply counts, since receipt, possession, copying, and sharing all count as distinct crimes, and what counts as a single item of illegal porn admits of narrow – or expansive – interpretations. As well, state and federal charges for the same acts is not deemed double jeopardy.
The world’s English-speaking countries are the most exercised about nudity and sex involving teens and children, but even here the discrepancy in punishments stands out between the U.S. and the rest. This October in Edmonton, Canada, a 28-year-old man was sentenced to three years for actually making what the court said was porn with boys younger than ten at an after-school program. In August, British comedian Christopher Binns, who’d been found with 35,000 indecent images of minors on his devices, got off with probation.
In Washington State last year, an official policy board suggested that the legislature revise the law to stop imprisoning first-time offenders caught looking at illegal images and offer counseling instead. As well, federal judges have pushed back against harsh penalties for first-time offenders simply caught looking at illegal porn – Wojahn is not accused of making the images or interacting with anyone depicted in them. But with lawmakers escalating punishments over decades for illegal images, state porn charges often allow room for creativity – and sentences ranging up to life. Prosecutor Braveboy has pushed charges against Wojahn to the max. The March 29th indictment asserts 80 counts of porn possession and distribution, but a superseding May 28th indictment raised the number to 140: 40 misdemeanor counts of possession, and 100 felony counts for distribution.
Patrick Wojahn had served as a College Park city councilmember since 2007, and then as mayor since 2015. He was prominent in the fight for gay marriage, serving on the board of Equality Maryland, and as its chair in 2011. With his now husband, Dave Kolesar, Wojahn was one of the plaintiffs in the Maryland marriage equality lawsuit, Deane vs. Conaway. A progressive in a liberal college town – home to University of Maryland’s flagship campus – he advocated for clean energy and sought to amend the city charter to include anti-discrimination safeguards around race, sex, and sexual orientation. He served on a commission that sought redress for the city’s neglect of the historically black Lakeland district and sponsored a Martin Luther King tribute.
Wojahn’s stint as mayor capped a career of engagement and activism that started early. Growing up in Wisconsin, he was an Eagle Scout, and joined fellow high school students on a cultural exchange trip to Siberia. At University of Wisconsin, Madison, he served in student government and the campus gay group – honing, he told University of Maryland students in 2016, the organizing skills and sensitivity to town/gown tensions that served him in College Park municipal politics. He received a law degree in 2002 from Georgetown University, and subsequently worked with National Disability Rights Network, the Whitman-Walker Clinic advocating for people with HIV, and on environmental causes, before joining city government. A photo of Wojahn embracing his boyfriend at a pro-gay-marriage protest at the 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia was carried in newspapers around the U.S.
Like many of his friends and constituents in College Park, Wojahn’s immediate mayoral predecessor, Andy Fellows, told the Washington Post that “he is struggling to reconcile all the good that he thinks the mayor did with the unsettling allegations.”
Yet public support for the former mayor has been scant – owing to the stigma of the porn charges Wojahn has faced. Public figures, such as author John Grisham in 2014, who’ve criticized long sentences for just looking at images have been pressured to backtrack, despite many experts believing that harsh punishments are “driven by outrage and disgust rather than reason,” as columnist Jacob Sullum put it in Time magazine.
“Despite his decades of progressive activism and civic good works,” said one longtime Baltimore gay activist, who asked not to be named, “State’s Attorney Braveboy, assuming the mantle of avenging angel and devoid of mercy, has set out to destroy this man for acts that were allegedly short lived and completely out of character.”
Wojahn’s formal sentencing is set for November 20th.