To the Virginia prosecutor, the images looked like real children.
Everything seemed natural - the arms, the legs, the face. But the defendant claimed the images of children engaged in sexual acts were something put together by a computer.
Unable to identify any of the children, the prosecutor finally settled on a plea bargain. "We were really hamstrung," says Gary Close, the Commonwealth's attorney for Culpeper County, Virginia. "We couldn't say that they weren't morphed."
Now the question has come before the US Supreme Court: Should such alleged works of fiction be legal?
Next month, the US Supreme Court will begin weighing whether the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act can constitutionally bar such images. But until the court rules, which is likely this fall, it's complicating prosecutions of child pornographers.
When the Department of Justice tries cases today in the Western part of the US - where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled part of the Child Pornography Prevention Act unconstitutional - it must prove the pornographic images are of real victims. That adds what prosecutors say is a monumentally difficult task to an already heart-breaking job.
Adding to the burden of proof
To find proof, prosecutors rifle through old magazines that were produced before today's computer technology. And the Justice Department has brought over foreign law-enforcement officials who can testify that a child in an image is real.
"A greater burden shifts to law enforcement to prove these are actual victims," says a US Customs spokesman. "It may force us to change the way we investigate our cases," adds Angela Bell, a spokeswoman for the FBI.
Even before the court has ruled, state legislatures are moving forward to ban the images. Vermont and Missouri have already passed such bans, and last week, both Arizona and New Mexico took up similar legislation. But most of these laws will be contingent on the high court's ruling.