Thursday, May 8, 2003

Condon called fixture at morgue

Families make case vs. coroner over access to corpses

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For the last six months of 2000, Thomas Condon was a fixture at the Hamilton County Coroner's Office.

Court records and sworn statements show the Cincinnati photographer was repeatedly allowed into the morgue to see bodies and, on some occasions, to put on a lab coat and observe autopsies.

He sent Coroner Carl Parrott a Christmas card in December 2000 and delivered a Christmas ham to the coroner's staff. A month or so earlier, he stopped by the office to pick up some yard signs supporting Parrott's re-election campaign.

The lawyers for several Cincinnati families told a federal judge Wednesday that Condon's relationship with the coroner's staff was so cozy that it allowed him to take hundreds of inappropriate and illegal photos of bodies at the morgue.

The families now are suing Parrott and other county officials, claiming their civil rights were violated when Condon took photos of their dead loved ones after posing the bodies with toys, sea shells, fruit and other props.

The families say Condon may have taken the photos, but they blame county officials for giving the photographer "free rein" at the morgue.

"It is shocking," said Al Gerhardstein, a lawyer for the families.

Gerhardstein outlined the families' case against the county for the first time Wednesday when he asked U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel to approve his request for a class-action complaint.

If the judge agrees, the complaint could include the relatives of as many as 600 people whose bodies passed through the morgue during the six months that Condon had access to the office. Spiegel will likely decide the issue later this year.

Condon photographed at least nine bodies at the morgue, posing many of them with inanimate objects as part of an "art project."

He was later convicted of gross abuse of a corpse and sentenced to two years in prison. A pathologist at the morgue, Jonathan Tobias, was convicted of the same charges for giving Condon access to bodies.

But in court Wednesday, Gerhardstein argued that higher-ranking county officials should have been punished, too. He said several officials, including Parrott, knew what Condon was doing and did nothing to stop him.

"The man roamed around the office for six months," said Stan Chesley, another lawyer for the families.

Condon had become so comfortable at the morgue that he routinely brought his camera gear into the office and chatted with staff members. He even knew how to use a pass code to access the morgue via a keypad from outside, Gerhardstein said.

He said the Christmas card, ham and his interest in Parrott's political signs suggests Condon was well known at the office.

County lawyers, however, say only Condon and Tobias knew the photographer was posing bodies with props. They say Parrott agreed to let Condon and a video producer take some photos in preparation for making a training video, but he never gave permission for anyone to touch or pose bodies.

The county's lawyers say Condon apparently waited until pathologists and staff members were out of the room to take the posed photos.

Parrott's attorney, Larry Barbiere, said the coroner approved only one visit to the morgue by Condon.

He said Parrott did not know Condon had sent the staff a ham or had picked up political signs until after the fact. And he said Condon's Christmas card was unsigned.


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