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Connie Schultz: Daughter Reflects on Nightmare of Mother’s Innocent Photos

New book chronicles the controversy that swirled around images from a girl's childhood

Eight-year-old Nora Stewart had starred in tens of thousands of her mother’s family pictures by the time a photo lab processor asked police to review two prints of the little girl rinsing herself off with a shower nozzle.

Connie Schultz
Connie Schultz

The photos were from a batch of 11 rolls of film that Nora’s mother, Cynthia Stewart, had dropped off at a drugstore in Oberlin, Ohio. She had previously turned in hundreds of rolls, many of which included nude shots of her little girl at play, to the same store without incident.

In July 1999, everything changed. It took only one person with a suspicious eye to launch a legal nightmare that engulfed Nora and her parents for nearly two years.

When Stewart had looked through the lens of her used Nikon, she saw her daughter’s playful bath-time ritual. But when police and then-Lorain County prosecutor Greg White looked at the prints, they saw pornographic images of a child masturbating with a shower nozzle.

Stewart was handcuffed, arrested and charged with felony child pornography, and she faced 16 years in prison if convicted. She lost her job as a bus driver, and she and Nora’s father feared they would lose their child, too.

Stewart’s case generated coverage across the country, and a groundswell of bipartisan support in small-town Oberlin, the community she had called home since enrolling in Oberlin College in 1970. Even Nora’s guardian ad litem — a fundamentalist Christian and anti-porn crusader — believed that Stewart was innocent. Hundreds across the country contributed to her legal fund.

Poet Lynn Powell, a neighbor who helped raise money and support for Stewart, has chronicled the case in a new book titled Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response. It is a meticulously reported account — produced with virtually no cooperation from the prosecution’s side — of the tangled weave of judicial overshooting and citizen activism that led to a hard and imperfect ending. The charges were dismissed, but Stewart had to agree — ever so reluctantly — that the photos be destroyed.

Like many living in northeast Ohio at the time, I remember well when Stewart’s case unfolded in the pages of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and other newspapers. After reading Powell’s book, it is tempting to dwell on the pattern of similar cases pursued against equally innocent people caught in the cross hairs of politically ambitious prosecutors. There’s a righteous argument to be mined, no doubt.

But I wanted to know what I suspect a lot of people are wondering: How is 19-year-old Nora Stewart doing now?

“I would have had a certain amount of drive anyway, but after this happened to my family, I always felt I had something to prove,” she told me recently in a phone interview. “I never wanted anyone to doubt I have a wonderful mother.”

Two years ago, Nora was valedictorian at Oberlin High School. She is now a sophomore at Yale University but will be home for the book’s official launch in Oberlin.

I asked Nora whether it was a burden to be 9 (her age at the time the charges were dropped) and feel she had to prove herself for her mother’s sake. Her response was quick: “Ultimately, this is a good burden,” she said.

“My mother always worried that destroying the photos would teach me something awful about standing up for yourself or that there was something wrong with my body. I certainly carried away lessons from that, but not in the way she feared. I understand why she had to do that. She ‘bought’ our freedom, our years together.”

Most of Nora’s friends at Yale have no idea about the controversy that swirled around those two photos from her childhood, and she harbors little concern about the impending publicity from Powell’s book.

“I’m glad Lynn wrote it,” she said. “It’s been 10 years, and the book will give the necessary perspective. I want everyone to know what my family went through and that my mother has done an amazing job as a mother. I want to be just like her.”

Nora repeatedly expressed gratitude for the hometown community that championed her mother. She also had kind words for White — a man she never has met, now a federal magistrate — who finally agreed not to prosecute.

“It was hard for my mother to reach that agreement,” she said, “but I know it must have been hard for him, too. I’m grateful to him that he could change his mind.”

So, to answer the question: 19-year-old Nora Stewart seems to be doing just fine.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. E-mail her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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