By Joe Beck
HARRISONBURG - A Winchester man convicted of molesting a 4-year-old boy and making pornographic videos with his victim was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court to the maximum sentence of 120 years in prison.
"This is almost as bad as you can get," a grim-faced Judge Michael F. Urbanski said during arguments at the sentencing hearing of James Robert Cobler, 28.
Urbanski said the case was unusually disturbing because Cobler's actions went beyond the three counts of sexually exploiting a child for the purpose of producing child pornography, jarring as that crime was. Cobler also molested the victim while producing the video and did so knowing that he was infected with the potentially fatal HIV virus.
"That's what ramps this case up and makes it so incredibly disturbing," Urbanski said.
Cobler also pleaded guilty last year to one count of possessing child pornography and one count of transporting child pornography.
Cobler was arrested at his residence at 500 S. Washington St. in early May after law enforcement officials tracked online child pornography files to an Internet subscriber address listed with his grandparents. They were not charged in any crimes. He molested his victim four times in the month before his arrest and had been babysitting the child since mid-September 2011.
Cobler, short in stature and pale with close-cropped hair and a thin beard, appeared in court in a prison uniform with his attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Joel C. Hoppe. After taking his seat at the defendant's table, Cobler cast a backward glance to a man sitting in the back of the courtroom who later identified himself as Cobler's grandfather. He did not give his name.
Hoppe said he agreed that his client had committed "a terrible offense," but called the case unique for the troubled life Cobler had lived and the even more harrowing existence he was likely to face in prison.
Hoppe cited the deep stigma attached to child molesters, his client's life long battle with a serious illness, his frail physique and naïve tendencies as factors that will make him especially vulnerable to abuse by other inmates.
Cobler told Urbanski he was "truly sorry" for his actions, then paused to collect himself before he continued reading from the statement he had prepared.
"I don't really understand why I did it," Cobler said, adding again, "I am deeply sorry for what I have done."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Healey, who asked that Cobler receive the full 120-year sentence called for in federal sentencing guidelines, was unmoved by Hoppe's arguments that the defendant's ill health and vulnerability to predatory inmates deserved consideration in the sentencing.
"He's concerned about the quality of life in prison. Where was that concern about the victim's quality of life?" she demanded.
Urbanski, Healey and Hoppe revealed during the hearing that Cobler has been afflicted with HIV since birth. But Healey noted he was clearly aware of the disease and the risks it posed to his victim at the time he committed his crimes. She said tests on the victim showed he had not been infected, despite the sexual contact he had with Cobler.
Urbanski agreed in his sentencing to recommend that Cobler be sentenced to a medical center run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in Butner, N.C., although prison officials will decide where he will be placed.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org