Plain Dealer

September 6, 2010

Lynn Powell's 'Framing Innocence' shows Oberlin rising up for an accused mother

The child on the cover of "Framing Innocence" is Nora Stewart, age 6, the subject of tens of thousands of pictures before she turned 10, snapped almost daily as she grew up in Oberlin.
The photographer was her mother, Cynthia Stewart, a former Oberlin College student -- famously depicted herself on a 1970 Life Magazine cover for a story about co-ed dorms. Stewart stayed in town, becoming a colorful, well-liked school-bus driver. Then, in 1999, she dropped off 11 rolls of film at the town Discount Drug Mart.

The store had developed countless Stewart negatives over the years, but this time, a lab processor called in police to look at four photos of Nora in a bathtub, moving a shower head across herself to rinse off.

Stewart had sought to capture a typical bathing ritual, but the police, and Lorain County Prosecutor Greg White, saw an 8-year-old in the act of masturbating with a shower nozzle. The pictures were confiscated as obscene, and Stewart was charged with felony child pornography. She faced 16 years in prison.

"We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are," Oberlin poet and author Lynn Powell quotes from the Talmud.

In "Framing Innocence," Powell tells the story of "a Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal, and a Small Town's Response" in a thoughtful, measured way. She writes as a community champion of Stewart's innocence, but she is honest enough to report that one of the notorious pictures, for a moment, gravely unsettled her.

Still, those who knew Stewart -- a warm, earnest hippie who gave birth at home -- were shocked by her arrest. She lost her bus-driving job immediately, then an organic-food grocer came forward to provide another. The community rose up:

"A lawyer offered to be on a $10 retainer in case the family needed an attorney especially for Nora. A sculptor made the family a talisman of stone and strips of willow. Nora's violin teacher stopped charging for lessons. Cynthia's landlady . . . stopped charging rent."
Framing Innocence
In this well-written, absorbing book, Powell charts the ingenious ways the prickly residents of Oberlin rallied to support Stewart and her partner, David Perrotta, and to back down White. The born-again guardian ad litem turned into an ally. Sources within the courthouse leaked information to the activists. Eventually, and painfully, the prosecutor and Stewart's lawyers bargained a truce, settling on a diversion agreement with the court.

White and his assistant refused to give Powell interviews, but her careful reporting lets the reader intuit a good deal. The book drags some in the legal sections -- a magistrate sustaining/overruling various objections -- but it also lets us ponder how a vague law was used against an unconventional mother; where the boundaries of family privacy reside; and how the First Amendment and notions of nudity came into play.

Nora Stewart is 19 now and a sophomore at Yale University. Her parents' partnership did not survive the ordeal.

* * *

Following is article published by City Beat while Cynthia was undergoing her ordeal.

Thursday, January 27,2000
A Snapshot of What Freedom Is and Isn't


Like many parents, Cynthia Stewart is an ardent amateur photographer when it comes to recording the lives of her children. Unlike most, the Oberlin Schools bus driver faces up to 16 years in prison on two criminal charges of illegal use of a minor in nudity-oriented material and pandering sexually oriented photographs involving a minor.

Her crime was taking 19 pictures of her 8-year-old daughter Nora in the bath (apparently Nora takes her baths naked!) and giving the roll of film to a Discount Drug Mart in Oberlin for developing. The store sent it to Fuji Color Processing of Ohio in Mansfield, where technicians felt compelled to contact Mansfield police, who sent the photos to police in Oberlin, who arrested Stewart.

So what lewd and lascivious smut is occurring in these pictures, which Lorain County Prosecutor Gregory White describes as "well over the line" and "not anywhere near the category of normal"? Well, it's not so easy to say, as for months the prosecutor's office has refused to make prints of the photographs available to defense lawyers.

"The state of Ohio is not in the business of reproducing child pornography," Assistant Prosecutor Jonathan Rosenbaum explained, refusing to share the photos unless a court order compelled him to do so. "Clearly, the fewer copies of such prohibited material that are in existence will make the task of destroying them and removing them from the face of this planet much more easy."

Stewart herself has not seen the confiscated pictures she took.

In response to a defense request for more specifics about the case, Rosenbaum filed a one-paragraph reply, saying nine of the pictures had the child "assuming adult-like postures or expressions which are inappropriate and beyond her years" and in two of the pictures she holds a shower sprayer in "a provocative and adult-like manner which is inconsistent with normal photographs of a child of tender years and certainly inappropriate."

No sex acts here. No other persons or beasts. The child's not touching herself. There's no selling or publishing or posting of these images. It's just that the pictures are not what these publicly funded art critics consider "normal."

The ACLU has filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Stewart, arguing that the Ohio statute under which she is charged is so vague and overbroad it permits violations of her constitutional rights. ACLU lawyers who have seen the photographs say they're completely innocuous pictures of a child playing in a bathtub. Stewart's attorneys agree, saying the pictures are "innocent depictions ... which journalize a child's activities and life. There is no evidence to establish that this child is abused or exploited in any way."

Meanwhile, Cynthia and her husband, Dave Stewart, put a $20,000 lien on their house to post Cynthia's bond to get her out of jail and have already used up their life savings for her legal defense. Nora has been taunted on her school playground, and her family is being investigated by child protective services, who are considering removing her from the family home. The fear and anxiety wrought by the genuinely "provocative," "inappropriate" and "well over the line" actions of local public officials has caused inexcusable and irreparable damage to this family's lives. The real abuse here has been confusing prosecutorial with persecutorial.

If photographing your child undressed is a criminal act in Ohio, countless other parents must be living in fear of prosecution. Simply picturing nakedness, even of minors, is not porn or obscenity and should not be a crime. Even sexuality is not something to be purged of representation, as it is a normal part of children's identities. We so need to grow up as a culture when it comes to these issues!

Recommended Reading
False Child Abuse Allegations

Truth in Justice