Descent Into Legal Hell

On the afternoon of Sept. 28, 1999, sheriff’s deputies pulled into the driveway of Cynthia Stewart’s Ohio home and arrested her. Her crime: taking pictures of her 8-year-old daughter playing in the bathtub. She had sent the photos to a film-processing lab, and the lab called the police. The police took the pictures to the town prosecutor, who viewed them as harmless and declined to press charges. The police then turned to the county prosecutor, who was all too happy to take the case. He promptly brought child- pornography charges against Ms. Stewart.

“Framing Innocence” is Lynn Powell’s reported account of Ms. Stewart’s descent into legal hell. For two years, the case meandered through the justice system. Child Services filed suit, seeking custody of Ms. Stewart’s daughter on the grounds that the young girl had been abused. Ms. Stewart was threatened with 16 years in jail. Her legal bills ran upwards of $40,000. In the end an intense public campaign on her behalf forced the ambitious prosecutor (who is now a federal judge) to cut a deal in which Ms. Stewart was absolved of wrongdoing.

The case is not unique. By the time Ms. Stewart’s saga ended, another mother in Ohio and a grandmother in New Jersey had also been arrested on similarly absurd charges. The relevant case law, Osborne v. Ohio, gives such a loosely worded standard for child pornography that it allows the state nearly unfettered intrusion into family life. Like the Supreme Court’s eminent-domain decision (Kelo v. City of New London), Osborne has had the effect of unleashing the power of the state on unsuspecting individuals. If you have ever taken a picture of a naked toddler, the only thing standing between you and criminal prosecution is the good judgment of government workers.

The Stewart case is particularly notable in that it took place in Oberlin, Ohio, which is Middle America’s version of Berkeley, Calif. Nearly every character in the cast is liberal to the point of self-parody. Before her court appearance Ms. Stewart had never owned a bra. Her cat was named after a Sandinista spy. Her then-partner worked for the Nation magazine. (They have split up since.) And yet the liberals who rallied to Ms. Stewart’s defense are undiverted from their belief that government should have a great deal to say about how people live their lives.

“Framing Innocence” is thoroughly and fairly reported, without a strong polemical thrust. If there is a point to this morality tale, in Ms. Powell’s telling, it seems to be that in the justice system mistakes can be made—sometimes terrible mistakes. True enough, but more could be said. If a well-meaning law about child pornography can wreak such havoc on families, anyone care to speculate on what a 2,000-page health-care law might do?

Mr. Last is a senior reader at the Weekly Standard


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