Sentencing guidelines limit Watai team to year

Sunday, April 19, 2009

With the judge saying he was bound by sentencing guidelines, a former Vanderbilt professor will serve just one year on sexually related charges stemming from an Internet sting.

Lason Lain Watai, 47, was given the prison term by Judge Lee Russell after a sentencing hearing that lasted well over an hour, with both the defense and prosecution giving arguments over how light or severe the sentence should be.

"I don't think it's enough, but I must follow the law," Russell said in handing down the sentence for the five charges -- two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, two counts of solicitation of a minor and attempted aggravated statutory rape.

The fact that Watai had a completely clean record before being arrested for the crimes was a major factor in the light sentence, but while defense attorney John Norton asked for probation and treatment for Watai for sexually related issues, other factors led to the judge giving Watai a year of incarceration.

Russell cited three factors in his sentencing decision -- the rise of sexually related crimes against children in the community and whether tough sentencing would deter future crimes, the Internet chat transcripts which proved that Watai was "calculating" in his attempt to have sex with the person he thought was an underage girl and also due to publicity about the case in local and statewide media.

However, Russell ruled that case law affirmed that the psychosexual report on Watai had to be done by a psychiatrist instead of a licensed clinical psychologist, who had completed the study, therefore, the report was not considered in the sentencing hearing.

Detective Charles Merlo of the Shelbyville Police Department was cross-examined at length by Norton on the impact that reports in the Times-Gazette and Nashville television stations may have had in deterring similar offenses.

Watai entered a guilty plea as his trial was to begin last month. He admitted that he engaged in Internet chats with Merlo from May 25 to 27 of last year, with Watai believing that the detective was a 13-year-old girl from Shelbyville named April.

On May 27, Watai asked "April" if she wanted to have sex, then sent web links to the detective over the next two days. The web sites contained pornographic video, photos and other sexual content.

Watai also told "April" in an Internet chat on May 28 he wanted to meet her in a park in Shelbyville and then travelled to the meeting spot, where he was arrested by Shelbyville police on May 29.

During the chats, "April" said that Dr. Pepper was her favorite drink and Watai bought some to the meeting.

Each of the charges against Watai are Class E felonies, which carry a sentence of one to six years and a $3,000 fine. The prison terms could have been served concurrently or consecutively, but Watai received the minimum jail term possible.

Watai will also be entered into the National Sexual Offender Registry. He was an assistant professor of the Practice of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, according to Vanderbilt's web site.

Watai's case is one of several brought by Merlo, who has been conducting undercover operations in a regional Internet chat room posing as a 13-year-old girl.