San Francisco grand jury refuses to indict photographer Jock Sturges

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Lawyers joke that a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich at the prosecutor's behest. But in late August, a federal grand jury in San Francisco refused to indict photographer Jock Sturges on charges of distributing child pornography, ending for now a closely watched case that worried civil libertarians and artists.

In April 1990 federal agents, on a tip from a film processor, raided Sturges' San Francisco studio and seized photo and computerequipment along with 100,000 negatives. For 15 months, federal agents pored through the images and tracked down the photographer's models in the US and France in search of evidence of illegal pornography or sex.

But when prosecutors presented its case, the grand jury said it found insufficient evidence that Sturges, whose portraits of families at nudist beaches hang in galleries and museums, was producing pornography.

Federal law bans production, distribution, and possession of photographs that show people younger than 18 years having sex or even posing nude, if the shots are deemed "lascivious," a vague term essentially left to the eyes of judges and juries. Sturges insists his work is not pornographic and says that he only photographs models with their consent and that of their parents when they are minors.

The investigation into Sturges raised an outcry from artists' groups and civil libertarians. Even the media, which usually takes their angles on child porn stories from prosecutors' press releases, blanched at the image of government agents breaking down the doors of an acclaimed artist. Citing a "dangerous state of hysteria and repression over freedom of expression of artists," the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in July 1990 urging federal authorities to abandon the investigation.

The outcry didn't stop the government's harassment of Sturges. But like two other notorious cases where artists were taken to court for obscenity - prosecutions of the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's works and of the rap band Two Live Crew - juries refused to play along.

Is there a pattern emerging? "I think the government will tend to take a hands-off attitude to people who have artistic standing, but continue to harass and pick off individuals who seem vulnerable to attack," suggests Lawrence Stanley, a New York attorney specializing in pornography law. Stanley says that California police recently launched an investigation into a woman after an Irvine photo lab reported her to authorities for a picture of a shirtless 12-year-old girl.

Sturges himself is not entirely out of the woods. The government has five years to bring new evidence to a grand jury and again seek an indictment.

source: Article 'San Francisco Grand Jury Refuses To Indict Photographer Jock Sturges - After outcry from civil libertarians, feds can't make porn charges stick' by Bill Andriette; Nambla Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 8; October 1991