'I Had to Do Something About It'

Joseph Mathew won a record verdict in a revenge-porn case—before Texas even made it a crime 

Published in 2021 Texas Rising Stars Magazine

“It was a nightmare he created. He wrote it, he directed it, and he starred in it. It was her life, and she had no choice in it.” Joseph Mathew’s opening words to a Texas jury set the stage for a groundbreaking verdict: a half-million dollars for Mathew’s client—a victim of revenge porn—before Texas had any laws protecting such victims.

For Mathew, the case began in 2012, when an associate told him about a friend we’ll call Maggie. For over two years, according to Mathew, her ex-boyfriend texted and called her and her family, threatening to distribute intimate photos and videos; showed up at Maggie’s workplace, hacked her electronic devices, and ultimately uploaded explicit videos of her—recorded without her knowledge—to a pornographic website. Maggie moved to an apartment with burglar bars, and worried that the videos—which could be found by Googling her name and were viewed by thousands—would get in the way of future employment. She stopped socializing, because her friends either knew—or wanted to know—about the videos, and her reputation in her Muslim community was stained. “I don’t know who I can face,” she testified. “I don’t know who has seen these.”

Other lawyers turned Maggie away, saying there wasn’t much they could do in the absence of a law against revenge porn. Mathew took the case anyway. “I felt I had to do something about it,” he says. “I had to stand up and fight for this girl.”

Framing the fight in a legal context presented challenges. “It’s very hard for me to get a jury to take my side if they cannot see a broken bone sticking out, or a huge scar,” Mathew says. “All the torture, all the damage is in this person’s mind. One of the hardest things is: How do I show the jury?” 

His solution was to craft a presentation that hammered home a crucial point: “The right to be left alone is just as important as the right to your own property or to be free from confinement,” he says. Mathew focused on existing state laws covering intrusion, mental anguish, disclosure of private facts, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress to show the jury—which he assumed to be fairly conservative—that Maggie had a right to expect the videos to be kept private. He took the jury on her journey and showed how deeply her trust had been violated. He convinced them the damage to her reputation was real—and permanent. He fended off implications by the defense that Maggie was only in court for a payout.

When it came to damages, Mathew focused on the value of human dignity. He asked jurors to consider how much even a tiny defacing of the Mona Lisa would damage its value. “You put that much value on a work of art created by an artist, but here’s a person. And dignity can never be put back together,” he says. 

After a weeklong trial, the jury awarded Maggie $500,000, the largest revenge-porn jury verdict in the country at the time. (It was later reduced it to $345,000 on appeal.) That same year, Texas passed a law against distributing intimate images or videos of a person without consent. (It was later amended to require “with intent to harm.”) It’s currently a Class A misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to a year in jail and up to a $4,000 fine. 

Mathew can’t say for sure whether the case had any direct impact on the law, but says, “It brought a lot of attention to this revenge-porn issue, I think. And that’s when people started realizing that, OK, something can be done about this.”

He has taken on several more revenge-porn cases, deploying creative tactics—one of which he calls “reverse slut-shaming.” That involves filing cases that keep the victims’ names anonymous—“these are basically sexual-assault victims,” he says—but that puts in the public record the names of those posting revenge porn. 

One of his tactics has failed so far, but he is hopeful it will stick someday. He calls it negligent entrustment of a chattel: pinning responsibility on parents or others providing phones, computers or internet service to known offenders, much like negligent entrustment of a motor vehicle to someone without a license or known to be incompetent or reckless. “My argument was that, just like a motor vehicle, you know your child was doing this,” he says.

Although the Texas law allows for civil damages, the slim hope of recovery from most revenge-porn perpetrators still dissuades many law firms from accepting these cases. Nevertheless, Mathew encourages lawyers to take them on. “I think this is something we should do as a society,” he says. “I think it’s important.”

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