Framing Innocence: A Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal, and a Small Town's Response

Framing Innocence: A Mother's Photographs, a Prosecutor's Zeal, and a Small Town's Response

by Lynn Powell


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This nationally acclaimed book tells the shocking true story of how photographs taken by an amateur photographer and mother became the center of a disturbing legal battle that galvanized a community and challenged the legal system charged with protecting, not harming, children.

When Cynthia Stewart dropped off eleven rolls of film at a drugstore near her home, it didn’t occur to her that two snapshots of her eight-year-old daughter would cause the county prosecutor to arrest her, take her away in handcuffs, threaten to remove her child from her home, and charge her with crimes that carried the possibility of sixteen years in prison.

Framing Innocence brilliantly probes the many questions raised: when does a photograph of a naked child cross the line from innocent snapshot to child porn? When does a prosecution cross the line from vigorous to overzealous? When does the parent, and when does the state, know best?

Written by poet Lynn Powell, a neighbor of Cynthia Stewart’s, this riveting and beautifully told story plumbs the perfect storm of events that put a loving family in a small American town at risk.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595587145
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Lynn Powell is the author of two books of poetry, Old and New Testaments and The Zones of Paradise. She lives with her family in Oberlin, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt


A Knock at the Door

The first two photographs of Nora Stewart were taken by her father, David Perrotta, in 1991, on the day she was born. In one, the midwife is hefting and weighing her, as if hefting and weighing a good-sized fish, in the sling of a portable scale. In the other, her mother, Cynthia Stewart, is lying back on a pillow looking exhausted but pleased, with a "Gonzo's Garage" T-shirt pulled up above both of her breasts. The baby is wearing a bright Guatemalan cap. Her eyes are closed, and her tiny hand is half-clenched, with one of her fingers reaching up and almost touching the nipple her mouth is about to latch onto.

Cynthia's own first snapshot of her daughter was taken a week later. Cynthia's father had come for a visit bearing one of his famous whole-wheat fruitcakes, triple-soaked in bourbon and wrapped in a sheet of Mylar. He presented the cake as Nora's "dowry," then whisked up his new grandchild and draped her over his shoulder. Cynthia picked up her hand-me-down Nikon — a parting gift from an old boyfriend — and snapped.

By 1999, motherhood had transformed Cynthia Stewart from a casual to a passionate photographer. Early in her daughter's life, Cynthia had decided to take pictures of Nora on the last day of every month to record her growth and changes. Soon the photo sessions were weekly. And as Nora grew, so did the reasons to bring out the camera: puddle splashings, tree climbings, tea parties, bubble baths, picnics, birthdays, family friends, playmates, grandparents, fields of wildflowers, sunsets, pets. Nora took Suzuki violin lessons and Scottish dance lessons, played on a city soccer team, sang in a children's chorus, and performed with a children's drama troupe. Wherever her daughter went, Cynthia went, too, always with her Nikon around her neck.

Cynthia annotated, numbered, dated, and filed with its negative every photograph she took. Those photos were stored in a few dozen cardboard boxes — hatboxes, fruit boxes, shoe boxes — stacked in columns against the family's dining room wall. Cynthia dreamed of someday publishing a photojournalistic book that chronicled their family's life. But her larger goal was to bequeath to Nora a photographic memory of her childhood. In the eight years since Nora's birth, she had taken a staggering 35,000 photographs. Not all of those pictures were of Nora, but she was in the frame more often than not.

Cynthia, David, and Nora lived in a hundred-year-old farmhouse about a mile from the center of Oberlin, Ohio. Their house — the next-to-last before the neighborhood petered out into fields and farmland — was little, but with a big yard filled with forsythia, apple saplings, and a vegetable garden. Cynthia was a school bus driver. Now in her late forties, she was tall with ruggedly beautiful features and a mass of bushy brown hair that flowed down her back. There was a sureness to her bearing, a down-to-earth elegance and an expansive warmth. David telecommuted to New York City, working as a consultant for The Nation magazine, managing their digital archives. He was shorter than Cynthia, more reserved, and very handsome, with dark hair, a dark goatee, and a mordant sense of humor. Nora had grown into an articulate, precocious eight-year-old with her father's large, dark eyes and her mother's lighter brown hair, which almost touched her waist.

The family lived in a kind of cozy, whimsical disorder: piles of books teetered on tables and the piano bench, sweaters and scarves occupied comfy-looking chairs, issues of the New Yorker rose in knee-high stacks, colorful bird feathers were taped to kitchen cabinets, old holiday decorations hung about like domesticated ghosts. A large aquarium with fluttering fish stood in the small living room, where several cats lounged on the clutter. The most orderly precinct of the house was David's office, which shared the tiny upstairs with his and Cynthia's bedroom.

Cynthia usually took her film to be developed to Drug Mart, a large chain drugstore on the town's edge. On July 6, 1999, spotting an ad for a film processing sale, she scooped up eleven rolls and drove to Drug Mart. As usual, she scribbled the date and a few notes to herself on the receipts.

When Cynthia stopped by a few days later to pick up her prints, the clerk could find only ten envelopes with her name. Cynthia showed her the eleventh receipt, and, after searching the bins, the clerk promised to call the processing lab and track down the missing roll. But after a week of calling with no results, the clerk gave Cynthia the lab's number and wished her better luck.

Cynthia began calling the lab, fifty miles away in another Ohio town, every few days. Each time she called, her query was met with silence. Then the customer service agent would say, "That roll of film has not left the premises." Yes, Cynthia would explain, she had been told that before, but since her roll of film was clearly lost in their facility, could they keep looking for it? The agent would respond, "We have a tracer out on it." At first, this reassured Cynthia. But as she called repeatedly over several weeks, she grew frustrated: no one seemed concerned that her pictures had been lost, and no one could explain what this "tracer" process involved.

The date on Cynthia's receipt indicated that the missing roll had been shot in early June. The receipt's note — "Three in bath with crossed arms" — meant that the last three shots were similar and, since the third one was probably best, she should make sure the lab printed every frame. Cynthia was not concerned that the missing roll contained nude pictures of a child. She had taken photos of Nora naked — both in and out of the bathtub — since she was born, and most of those had been developed through this same lab. Cynthia's concern was that thirty-six of her pictures might be lost for good. Once before, another lab had lost one of her rolls, and she had spent two years calling, trying to track it down. Cynthia could never remember what was on the roll, which was exactly what pained her.

Over the following weeks, Cynthia kept calling, and, one by one, jotting down the names of the employees she had spoken with — Shelly, Jody, Minnie, Janet.

On the morning of August 11, two policemen knocked on the family's front door. One of the officers introduced himself as Detective Anadiotis from the Oberlin police department. He said they had some of her photographs down at the station.

"You've found my pictures!" Cynthia interrupted, delighted.

"Yes," he said, "and there are serious questions about those pictures, ma'am."

The detective's stern tone surprised Cynthia. He seemed tense, as if his efforts to be polite were being taxed by something unsaid. Then she thought of the bathtub shots. He must have gotten a wrong idea about them, she realized. Confident she could straighten out any misunderstanding, she invited the officers into the house.

As the men came in, Cynthia explained that she was a mother and an amateur photographer. Her missing roll — the roll they had found — was part of an ongoing project to document her family's life. She pointed at the boxes stacked in the dining room as proof.

The detective glanced at the boxes and said, "Ma'am, we'd like you to come down to the station right now and answer some questions."

Again Cynthia was taken aback by the officer's brusqueness. But she quickly agreed to go to the station — whatever it took to bring those pictures home. First, she would need to tell her partner, who was upstairs working, where she was going.

David had studied Law and Society in college and had interned with a lawyer; he had a broad and somewhat jaded understanding of the legal system. When Cynthia told him of the conversation downstairs, David was alarmed: "You're not talking to the police — not without a lawyer, you're not!"

"The police just misunderstood," she assured him. "It's no big deal."

David was incredulous. "It's always a big deal when the police want to talk!"

Cynthia said she could explain everything.

"Not without a lawyer, you won't!" David insisted that an attorney was needed anytime you said anything to law enforcement, no matter how innocent you were.

But Cynthia didn't see why she couldn't just go down to the police station and set the matter straight. She didn't need anyone's help to tell the truth. Their disagreement escalated down the stairs and continued in the living room in front of the officers until Cynthia turned to Detective Anadiotis and asked him to explain the situation to David.

The detective looked straight at her and said again, "There are serious questions about those pictures, ma'am."

David blanched. And for the first time, Cynthia felt concerned, too — not about the police, but about David. Fighting was not something she and David often did, and this sudden vehemence between them unsettled her. She didn't want to push their fight any further, especially with the policemen watching. "All right," she conceded. "We're going to call a lawyer." The detective urged her to have the lawyer contact him at the police station as soon as possible.

As the officers drove away, there was no disagreement about what to do next. Cynthia picked up the phone and dialed Tom Theado.


Lawyers in Their Life

Tom Theado was one of Cynthia's oldest friends. They had met in 1970 as freshmen at Oberlin College and had both ended up settling in the town. In their young adulthood, they had socialized often. When Tom had visited the Stewart family farm in West Virginia, he had been astonished to learn that Cynthia's father did not change his clocks when the rest of the country went on daylight savings time: Bill Stewart considered daylight savings time unnatural. And Tom had been nonplussed when he had learned firsthand what Cynthia had meant by, "We'll go swimming at The Farm." She had meant they would be skinny-dipping in the Ohio River with barges going by.

Tom had gone on to become a successful lawyer in the large county Oberlin was part of: Lorain County. Through the years, he and Cynthia had stayed in touch, mostly by phone. Now he listened to her description of the police visit with more concern than Cynthia had anticipated.

As a class-action attorney, Tom said he couldn't be of much help. But he did know an attorney whose specialty was family law and who would be just right: Amy Wirtz. Though only in her early thirties, Amy had already served as public defender in a nearby county, had extensive experience with Children Services, and was earning a reputation as a feisty advocate. Tom promised, "Amy will fight for you 100 percent because that's the kind of lawyer she is."

As soon as they hung up, Tom called Amy himself. He wanted to assure her that she could believe everything Cynthia and David told her. "I knew Cindy way back when she was Cindy," Tom said. "I can vouch for these parents."

When David and Cynthia called Amy, she agreed that it had been prudent for Cynthia not to go down to the station. She did think, however, that the situation could be easily resolved. For a parent to get into trouble, usually the photos had to show sexually graphic or explicit material, a sexual act. Their first appointment would cost $40. Cynthia and David scheduled that appointment for the next day.

Amy Wirtz was in private practice in Elyria, the county seat. She shared a tidy suite of offices — and a secretary and a legal assistant — with another female attorney. A blindfolded, scales-and-sword-wielding Lady Justice towered on each side of the office's large window that looked out on the green town square and the county courthouse.

Amy had short brown hair and wore a trim dark suit and pumps, all of which made her look to Cynthia and David like a textbook lawyer. But they liked that her conference room was furnished with a dining room table. Amy believed that the best talking in a family happened around meals, so a law office ought to have a table where people can open up as they do at home.

To Amy, Cynthia looked like an attractive, aging hippie. She was braless and wore a loose blouse, flowing skirt, and Birkenstocks. David looked younger than Cynthia, and Amy quickly learned that he was younger — by thirteen years. He and Cynthia had never married, but they had been together a dozen years and were raising their daughter nuclear-family style. As David detailed his concerns about a police interrogation, Amy found him well-informed and ferociously articulate.

Cynthia wanted to describe to Amy the beginnings of her passion for photography. After the birth of her daughter, she said, she had been flooded with postpartum elation. That had not surprised her. What had surprised her was an accompanying feeling: a sharpened sense of her own, and her daughter's, mortality. That overwhelming sense of the transience of life made her marvel at her camera: a box she could put a moment inside of; a contraption that could catch and keep what was fleeting. Cynthia had begun to document her family's life in an almost daily way. Her interest was not in filling up scrapbooks. Her interest was larger: she wanted to give her daughter a vivid, permanent memory of her childhood — to save from oblivion the ordinary days of her growing up. Every picture she took, Cynthia felt, was a moment she had snatched away from death.

Amy listened to Cynthia carefully. She knew something about the art of photography: her own father had taught the subject at a state university, and he had worn a camera around his neck much of the time. Still, she had never heard anyone talk about photographs in such an ardent way. Concerned, she asked Cynthia to describe what was on the confiscated roll.

Based on the date and the note on her receipt, Cynthia said, the roll probably contained end-of-school-year pictures and pictures of Nora in front of a weeping cherry tree. Most of her photographs were spontaneous, she explained, but sometimes she took pictures in annual series. For example, each spring, when the neighbor's weeping cherry or the peonies in a professor's yard bloomed, she would pose Nora in front of those flowers.

The roll also definitely included some nude shots. In June, Cynthia had taken Nora to see a photography exhibit at a local art gallery. Nora had been mesmerized by a black-and-white photograph, shot from above, of a woman rising out of a claw-foot tub with her head thrown back, her eyes closed, and her long hair swirling in the water behind her. When Nora had asked if they could re-create the picture at home, Cynthia had agreed.

Later that afternoon, at the end of Nora's bubble bath, Cynthia brought her camera into the bathroom. She stood above the tub and aimed her camera down as Nora closed her eyes, threw her head back, and lifted slowly up from the filmy water. Cynthia took several shots as the water drained out. Then Nora stood up to rinse herself with the shower sprayer as she always did.

When her daughter was small, Cynthia had started a bath-time game to make sure she had washed and rinsed properly. Nora would stand in the tub, and Cynthia would name each part of her body, asking if she had rinsed there. Nora would answer by pointing the showerhead at that part of her body and spraying. The rinsing went from head to foot, including her buttocks and genitals. Sometimes as she rinsed, pretending to be a Power Ranger, Nora would assume poses that made her look like a superhero. A couple of times in the past, Cynthia had photographed the rinsing game. That afternoon, Cynthia thought to document the game again.

She finished up the roll by taking some waist-up shots of Nora out of the tub with her arms crossed and a towel wrapped around her long, wet hair. Those shots were a test of various lighting conditions — some had flash and some did not. None of the pictures was a close-up. "So, you see," Cynthia concluded, "those pictures are really no big deal."

Amy was not so sure. The police were not going to look at those pictures the way a mother would, she pointed out. The police were going to look through the eyes of men who had been charged with the job of rooting out crime, and in the past dozen years or so, child pornography and the sexual abuse of children had become crimes on everybody's minds — so much so that children were now often viewed primarily as potential victims.

Amy knew of two cases in other Ohio counties where parents had been prosecuted for what they claimed were innocent pictures of their children. In one case, the parents had taken a video of their infant son touching his penis. The parents had thought the video was funny; the police had not. In the other case, a wealthy, single mother had been arrested for snapshots her naked six-year-old daughter and her daughter's friend had taken of themselves with a disposable camera, without the mother's knowledge. Against all evidence, the county prosecutor indicted the mother for taking the pictures herself. Although she was eventually acquitted, the prosecution dragged on for months, the headlines were sensational, and the mother spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on her defense.


Excerpted from "Framing Innocence"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Lynn Powell.
Excerpted by permission of The New Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Part One
1. A Knock at the Door
2. Lawyers in Their Life
3. “Peculiar in That Which is Good”
4. Arrest
5. Suspicions
6. Newsworthy
7. Everything on Their Side

Part Two
8. The Sleeping Dragon Stirs
9. Consultations
10. Rorschach
11. New Year’s Dread
12. Motions, Briefs, Schemes, and Case Plans
13. “I Know It When I See It”
14. “The Average Person with Average Sex Instincts”
15. Cogs and Wheels

Part Three
16. The Politburo
17. Improvisations
18. Watching Out and Watching Over
19. A Thousand Pictures’ Worth
20. One-on-One
21. “I Expect You To Be Honorable”
22. Bottom Lines
23. Almost Normal
24. Gratitude
25. A Memory of Spring


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