Eliot Cutler returns to court, pleads guilty to child porn charges
May 4—Former gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler pleaded guilty Thursday to possessing thousands of sexually explicit images of children, many as young as 4 years old.
Cutler, 76, will report to the Hancock County Jail on June 1, where a judge ordered him to spend nine months behind bars. The former politician and attorney was convicted of four felony-level counts of possessing sexually explicit materials of children under 12 years old, and he will have to register as a sex offender for life. He also has agreed to pay $5,000 to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which prompted the investigation that led to his charges.
Cutler will serve nine months of a four-year sentence and then remain on probation for six years. If he's caught having or accessing sexually explicit images of minors, or violating the conditions of his release, Cutler could return to prison for the full four-year sentence.
"I will never, ever relapse and engage again in the behavior that brought me here today," Cutler told the court. "This crime is not all of who I am, or all of who I am and will be. I will devote the rest of my years to making amends as best I can. To seeking redemption and to earning, again, the trust of my family, friends and community."
For decades, Cutler was respected and admired for his work as a public servant. An Ivy League graduate who worked on Capitol Hill and in the White House, Cutler had a hand in major national policy shifts on energy and natural resources in the 1970s. He co-founded a successful environmental law firm in Washington, D.C., and later returned to Maine, where he unsuccessfully ran for governor as an independent in 2010 and 2014.
Cutler was arrested and charged in March 2022. Although he has been free on $50,000 bail for most of that time and allowed to access the internet after paying a third-party company to monitor his use, Cutler did not have to appear in person for any of his public hearings until Thursday.
He slipped into the Hancock County Superior courtroom in the afternoon as Justice Robert Murray was preparing to address a "variety of criminal matters." Cutler sat in the back corner of the room, arms crossed and often looking down, as Murray worked his way through a blue crate of manila case files.
Murray had spoken with most of the defendants and their court-appointed lawyers when he asked, "Are we ready to take up the Cutler matter?"
A line of television reporters, standing behind tripods in a jury box across the room, began to rise. Cutler stood up and followed his attorney, Walt McKee, to the front of the room.
PROSECUTORS OUTLINE CASE
Cutler sat, hands folded and looking down, as Robert Granger, the district attorney for Hancock and Washington counties, outlined what prosecutors would've presented had the case gone to trial.
Cutler was arrested at his home in Brooklin on March 25, 2022, after investigators found thousands of child pornography images on his computers. Between 2014 and 2021, prosecutors say Cutler had more than 80,000 images of children younger than 12 engaged in often violent sexual acts, per a random sampling of 142,000 files.
The four charges issued against Cutler in March were based on an initial analysis by Maine's computer crime lab. Granger, who took over the case after he was elected district attorney last fall, said that upon further investigation Cutler's trove was much larger and more egregious. Prosecutors could've charged him per downloaded file, of which there were thousands.
Granger said the state decided to keep the charges against Cutler in state court, and not federal court where the stakes would've been higher, because they had no evidence he manufactured or disseminated the materials.
Prosecutors reached a plea agreement because there was a fear that if Cutler didn't plead, a statewide court backlog would've made it harder to bring him to trial and at nearly 77 years old, he might never have been held accountable.
In one video, Granger said there was a 4-year-old girl being "physically held down and raped, and that only "scratches the surface of the content of materials" police discovered.
"These children grow up not knowing where these videos are, who has them, and they continue to be exploited in the future," Granger said.
McKee said Cutler accepts responsibility for having a significant number of illegal images and videos. But he said the state's count is higher than what Cutler actually had because prosecutors considered single videos as hundreds of images. McKee said Cutler didn't view the most violent images prosecutors found, and that these were only included in batches Cutler would download en masse.
Nine months will be a "massive sentence for someone like Eliot," McKee said. Cutler has health issues, zero criminal history, has sought counseling and treatment for problematic sexual behaviors and has a history of public service.
In determining a sentence, Granger said his office analyzed dozens of similar cases dating to 1996. In some cases, the entire sentence was suspended, some served 90 days, and others between four and two years.
McKee said that between 2013 and 2023 the median unsuspended sentence for the crime was six months.
Cutler was born in Bangor and returned to Maine after a long career in Washington, D.C., much of which he spent working for a prominent law firm he helped establish. He ran for governor twice as an independent and used his personal wealth to bankroll both campaigns. He lost by less than 2 percentage points to Republican Paul LePage in a multi-candidate race in 2010 and lost again by a larger margin in 2014.
Years earlier, Cutler served as an aide to late Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, and later as a top adviser on environmental and energy issues for former President Jimmy Carter.
"While those accomplishments cannot be taken away from Eliot, today when the name Eliot Cutler comes up there will be few that mention his prior success and service," McKee said in court records, "and the first thing that will come to mind is that he was that person convicted of possessing child pornography. And that, in and of itself, is a punishment unlike any other."
Justice Murray said Thursday that he was "struck" by a line from one detective in Cutler's court records, in which the officer recommended the state treat Cutler the same as anyone else accused of the same conduct, regardless of Cutler's "public notoriety."
"This court can't help but note that the same heights of notoriety and success that have benefited you so greatly over the past several decades is what now today amplifies the shame that you, properly, are faced with," said Murray, who called the images "horrendous."
In his own remarks to the court, Cutler apologized to all victimized children and their families, as well as his friends and family.
He said the charges were the "consequences of an addiction" for which he is now in recovery, but that it was not an excuse and he had "countless opportunities" to come forward.
"To my friends and all the people throughout my life, especially to those in our Maine community, who placed their faith and trust in me, who have been shocked, repelled and disappointed by my behavior, I am profoundly sorry I let you down," Cutler said.