Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Morgue case: Whose standards?

Prosecutor says seeking of indictment likely

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Prosecution of a photographer suspected of taking inappropriate pictures in the Hamilton County morgue could center on whether Cincinnatians find the pictures offensive.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen on Tuesday called the photos — of bodies in various stages of autopsy — the most shocking things he has seen in his 25 years in law enforcement.

        But how his office handles one likely charge — abuse of a corpse — will depend on whether the photographs “offend the sensibilities” of just the families involved or of the entire community.

        In that sense, Mr. Allen said, the prosecution could be similar to an obscenity case in that the jury must make a subjective decision about what the community thinks is offensive.

        Cincinnatians will remember two obscenity cases in particular: the 1990 acquittal of the Contemporary Arts Center, and its director, for showing the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe; and the 1999 case against Hustler publisher Larry Flynt for selling obscene videos. The Hustler corporation pleaded guilty.

        In the current case, professional photographer Thomas Condon, whose Walnut Hills studio was searched Jan. 10, has not been charged.

        Cincinnati vice investigators continue to work on the case. They have turned some of their paperwork over to Mr. Allen's office, he said, but he is waiting for more before making a decision about taking the information before a grand jury.

        “I'd be shocked if we didn't” seek an indictment, Mr. Allen said at a meeting of the Enquirer's editorial board Tuesday.

        Misdemeanor abuse of a corpse, the statute that requires offending family sensibilities, could put the photographer behind bars for three months. Conviction on the more serious charge, a felony, could result in a one-year sentence.

        Some of the black-and-white photographs show what appears to be a young girl who has been autopsied. Some are close-ups of her face, sometimes covered with a piece of sheet music. Some show her hand on the book Alice in Wonderland.

        What apparently happened, Mr. Allen said in the first extensive explanation of the case, is that the photographer struck up a relationship with a morgue employee who allowed him access to bodies. Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott Jr.'s office originally came into contact with Mr. Condon, Mr. Allen said, after the coroner decided to make a training video on morgue procedures about a year ago.

        Dr. Parrott checked with Mr. Allen then, the prosecutor said, for his legal opinion about making such a video. Mr. Allen advised him to make sure he got families' permission for any bodies photographed.

        Mr. Condon came to the morgue with a videographer to give Mr. Parrott an estimate, which turned out to be $10,000 — a figure Dr. Parrott decided was too high. He canceled the video idea then, Mr. Allen said, and therefore did not need to seek any families' permission.

        Dr. Parrott could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He suspended one unidentified employee last week. He also has personally apologized to all but one of the families of the dozen bodies authorities think were photographed, Mr. Allen said.

        “It's obviously the right thing to do,” the prosecutor said. “And I know it's been a gut-wrenching experience for him.”


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