Coffee-Table Art or Off-the-Shelf Porn?: Key Issue in Child Porn Case Goes to Jury Today

The photographers’ work has been found in coffee table books, shown in galleries and museums coast to coast and can be found in Austin’ s largest bookstores, including Barnes & Noble and Book People.

This week, in a Travis County courtroom, photographs from Sally Mann’ s Immediate Family” and Jock Sturges’ “Radiant Identities,” as well as a Canadian film and photos from a Time-Life book on photographing children, are being called child pornography.

The books, which contain black-and-white photos of nude children and adolescents, have been part of a sharp art vs. porn debate across the country, with anti-pornography protesters urging prosecutors to file charges against book stores that sell such work.

That debate is now playing out before an Austin jury hearing the case of a Manor man.

Police began investigating Richard Thomas Roise, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a boy in Tarrant County in 1991, because they suspected him of molesting a 10-year-old boy he had befriended. When the boy refused to talk to police, they seized books, films and photos from Roise’s motel room and charged him with possession of child pornography.

Roise, 41, who if convicted faces 25 years to life in prison as a habitual criminal, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer argues that the seized material has artistic and educational value and is not pornography.

The eight women and four men on the jury are expected to begin deliberating today. Their decision will have implications beyond whether Roise returns to prison.

If Roise is convicted for possessing these books, will the bookstores that sell them face felony charges as well? And what about the Austin Public Library, which has Mann’s book in its collection? Or other residents who own the books or rent the movie?

“If they’re going to arrest us for carrying those books, I think it’s a sad statement of what Austin’s become in the last 20 years, ” said Stan Biderman, co-manager of Book People. “One of the purposes of art is to provoke, but being provocative doesn’t make it pornography.’ ‘

Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle said he won’t comment until the jury reaches a verdict. The lead prosecutor, Amy Casner, said she’s concentrating on Roise for now.

The jury could decide that most of the images are not child pornography, Casner said, but could convict Roise if they find that even one of the photos or movie scenes is lewd.

“The state’s position is that this material is lewd,” Casner told the jury in her opening argument, “because it focuses primarily on the genitals and (the models) are in very inappropriate or unnatural poses.”

Casner is also watching a case in El Paso, where two residents filed a criminal complaint against Barnes & Noble for “knowingly selling obscene material in the guise of art.” The El Paso County district attorney’s office hasn’t decided whether to prosecute.

Thwarted investigation

Roise had been living at the Manor Inn for two months when the mother of the boy told police that her son had gone to buy sodas with Roise and had been away for hours.

Police Chief Robert Snyder, who testified this week outside the jury’ s presence — Senior Judge Tom Blackwell ruled that testimony about the boy is inadmissible — said he asked the boy whether he had anything embarrassing he wanted to discuss.

The boy nodded, Snyder said, but then “he put up a wall and would not answer me. He was visibly emotional. His eyes were welling up with tears.”

Snyder then confronted Roise, who said he’d done nothing wrong, Snyder said. With no evidence of a sexual assault, police then asked Roise whether they could search his room.

Inside Room 13, Snyder said they found the photo books; two rented movies, “Leolo” and “Chickenhawks: Men Who Love Boys;” pictures cut from department store ads of children in bathing suits; and articles about sexual assaults and murders of young boys.

In a dresser drawer, Snyder also found an album with 29 photographs of naked children.

Roise’s lawyer, David Frank, hired New York photography critic A.D. Coleman as an expert witness. Coleman, who wrote the introduction for Sturges’ “Radiant Identities,” said that the 29 photos came from other widely available photography books, including the “Photographing Children” installment from a Time-Life book series.

After reviewing the material and consulting with other police agencies, Snyder filed the child pornography charges against Roise.

State law defines child pornography as an image of a child under age 18 engaging in sexual conduct. Among the elements of sexual conduct are intercourse – real or simulated – masturbation and lewd exhibition of the genitals.

Although “Leolo,” a 1992 film by French Canadian director Jeane- Claude Lauzon, was shown in U.S. art theaters and doesn’t contain nudity, prosecutors argue that two scenes depict masturbation. As for the nude photos in the books and the photo album, Casner said the poses are sexually suggestive and therefore lewd.

But the law doesn’t define “lewd,” Frank said. “That means that whoever is on this jury says that lewdness means whatever they think it means.”

Book chain under fire

Sturges and Mann have been controversial since their books were released in 1992.
Mann pointed her lens at her three children over a seven-year period. Sturges, who got his start in the 1970s photographing naked hippies at his brother’s California commune, recruits nudists to pose for him. “Radiant Identities” is full of naked blond children.

Those who consider the photos offensive argue that just because the work is dubbed “art” and sold in chain stores doesn’t mean it’s not pornographic.

Conservative Christian groups, led by Focus on the Family and Randall Terry, founder of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, have taken a special interest in Sturges. In dozens of states, protesters have picketed Barnes & Noble stores and filed criminal complaints against the chain for selling “Radiant Identities” and a book by photographer David Hamilton.

Struggles’ books have been literally ripped apart by protesters in Dallas, New York, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City and five other cities, according to Chris Finn, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.

The protesters, who have set up pages on the World Wide Web to spread their message, have filed criminal complaints and urged prosecutors to press charges against the book chain. In recent months, grand juries in Alabama and Tennessee have indicted Barrens & Noble for violating obscenity laws.

Barrens & Noble representatives could not be reached for comment.

Finn said Travis County is the first place he’s heard of to prosecute an individual for owning the book.

Finn said his group has supported Barrens & Noble, which so far has refused to pull the books. And despite the indictments, Finn said, most prosecutors have refused to go after the chain.

A buyer for Book People, Ell Watts, testified this week for the defense in Rose’s trial. Watts defended Mann and Sturges, saying no photography collection would be complete without their work.

“What’s next?” she asked outside the courtroom. “If they can get off the shelves what they find offensive, can I get off the shelves what I find offensive?”

Copyright © 1998, The Austin American-Statesman
Dave Harmon Dave Harmon, Coffee-table art or off-the-shelf porn?: Key issue in child porn case goes to jury today., 04-30-1998.

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