FLINT, Mich. – Sexually explicit videos of children found on the computer of a Michigan college professor had nothing to do with his research, which focused on Internet censorship and the use of children in advertising, among other things, his lawyer said Tuesday.
William Merrill appeared in federal court in Flint Tuesday and pleaded not guilty through his lawyer to possession of child pornography charges. He is charged separately with state-level child porn charges.
He resigned from his tenured position in the school's College of Education and Human Services earlier this month after authorities confronted him about three child porn videos found on his school computer.
Merrill's attorney, Dan O'Neil, told The Associated Press that any explicit images that may have been found on Merrill's work computer would have nothing to do with his work at the school. In Merrill's bio, which has been pulled from the Mount Pleasant school's website, he is described as specializing in censorship and the Internet and the impact of children on advertising in society, among other things.
The nearly monthlong investigation started Oct. 30 when the school's information technology staff noticed a large amount of data was transmitted from a single computer in the school's network. They tracked the source of the transmission, disconnected the computer from the Internet "and waited to see if the computer's user would contact the IT helpdesk for support," according to an affidavit filed in federal court.
Merrill contacted the helpdesk. IT staff opened a folder on the computer's main screen and found three video files. The first hour-long video file opened contained images of nude children who appeared to be 8 to 12 years old.
According to prosecutors, Merrill admitted to downloading the three videos on his school computer but said that was everything. But police eventually found more than 5,400 images and at least 26 movies depicting children being sexually exploited, according to the affidavit.
He was charged Nov. 7 in Isabella County court with distributing child pornography, possessing child pornography, and using a computer to commit a crime and was being held on a $500,000 bond in the Isabella County Jail in the local case.
Merrill was handed over to the custody of U.S. Marshal's Service after Tuesday's federal court hearing in Flint. He was due back in that courtroom Wednesday for a detention hearing, his lawyer said.
Merrill, 58, began teaching at Central Michigan in 1987 and was granted tenure in 1993. This fall, he was teaching four classes in teacher education and professional development at the school, which is about 120 miles northwest of Detroit.
School administrators expressed shock earlier this month when discussing the case during a news conference, saying Merrill had never displayed troubling behavior during his time at the school.
While being questioned by investigators, Merrill said he was sexually assaulted as a minor and "wanted to know if child pornography was as repulsive as he had read about," according to the affidavit.
"His whole world is crashing in," O'Neil said Tuesday. "We're talking about a successful man who has never been in trouble."
O'Neil said Merrill lived for a time in Germany where his parents worked for an American automaker. The alleged sexual assaults occurred when he was in fifth and sixth grades, O'Neil said. He declined to say who allegedly assaulted Merrill.
O'Neil said — with the federal charge filed — he expects Isabella County prosecutors to drop the local child porn distribution charges against Merrill.
"I still have not seen any evidence of distribution or sharing," O'Neil said. "Right now, all the evidence is reviewing this child pornography in the four corners of his home and office, which is serious enough."