Without expounding on why, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins rejected a plea agreement from a former UVA professor and the prosecution November 14, and said the matter will be heard by a different judge.
Walter Korte, 74, who had a long and distinguished career at the University of Virginia as a film expert, faced two counts of possession of child pornography. The plea agreement was presented in court in August. At that time, Higgins expressed reservations about the plea, asked for a pre-sentencing report and wanted to see the two images for which Korte was charged.
The case started during the summer of 2016 when Korte disposed of his porn collection in a dumpster outside Bryan Hall, where UVA’s English department is housed. University police staked out the dumpster and observed him tossing plastic bags on a couple of occasions.
Most of the thousands of images were legal, adult porn, but among the adult fare were images of clothed and naked young males—and magazines with Korte’s home address, according to Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Galloway in court in August.
The prosecution sent questionable images to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which found one known child pornographic image. The state attorney general’s office determined that nearly 700 images were child erotica, which depicts no nudity or sexual activity and is legal. The ages for pubescent males in 16 images could not be determined, according to Galloway.
In the plea, the parties agreed that Korte, who has no criminal record, no hands-on victims and whom a psychological assessment determined was not a threat, would serve a maximum of 12 months in jail and register as a sex offender.
Galloway told the judge that if Korte had been convicted of one count, sentencing guidelines called for probation and no sex offender registry.
“The court is going to reject the plea,” and it will be assigned to another judge, said Higgins three months later.
The agreement was either too lenient—or too harsh, opines legal expert David Heilberg. “Judge Higgins wasn’t of a mind to accept it,” he says.
Heilberg says there are two types of plea agreements. A judge usually accepts a recommendation plea but is not bound to follow it.
“What Higgins rejected was an appropriate plea,” he surmises. That means the commonwealth and the defense agree on the appropriate way for the case to come out, and the court can accept or reject it, but can’t change it, he explains. “Judge Higgins must have felt it restricted her too much.”
Korte will get a new judge at the December 4 docket call.