News: Prison for Art's Sake

Photographer won't answer judge, won't be freed

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Jymi Bolden

Thomas Condon, nonviolent photographer, stays in prison.

If photographer Thomas Condon believed he was getting out of prison this week, he had every reason to think so. When a judge had Condon hauled halfway across the state from a prison in Caldwell for a July 25 shock parole hearing, his family was sure it was a good sign.

The hearing last week was the continuation of a hearing Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel had held without Condon three weeks earlier. When Condon was allowed to attend the second hearing, employees at Noble Correctional Institution told him that the decision almost always meant a prisoner was going to be granted judicial release.

"Everybody at Noble said, 'If you're leaving, you're not coming back,' " says Condon's sister, Chris Jones.

But the ever-unpredictable Nadel decided Condon should go back to prison and serve his full sentence.

"Nothing has been presented which can override the devastation caused by the illegal and intrusive acts of defendant, Thomas Condon," Nadel wrote July 29.

An odd question
In April, Condon began serving a 30-month term for eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse.

A jury convicted him of illegally photographing bodies at the Hamilton County Morgue (see Morbid Subject issue of Oct. 18-24, 2001).

At trial, attorneys for Condon and his co-defendant, Dr. Jonathan Tobias, argued the two men believed the coroner's office had approved the photography project. Tobias, a former assistant coroner, is free on bond pending an appeal of his conviction.

Relatives of the people whose corpses Condon photographed are suing the county in federal court. That lawsuit explains Nadel's refusal to release Condon, Jones says.

At the hearing, Nadel said he had read the transcript of Condon's sentencing and had some questions.

"I'm not trying to beat a dead horse here," Nadel said.

Then he asked Condon who gave permission to take the photos at the morgue. On the advice of his attorneys, Condon — who had not testified at trial — did not answer the question.

Nadel sent Condon to the Hamilton County Justice Center to spend the weekend awaiting the judge's decision on early release.

"If I don't let you out, this could be the last time you see me," Nadel told Condon.

Even so, Condon's family still expected he would be released.

"We thought, 'What the hell, he's not going to bring him down and then postpone it and then keep him over the weekend and then not give it to him,' " Jones says. "There's no reason he shouldn't have it."

Nadel was true to his word: Without bringing Condon back to the courtroom, the judge issued a written ruling denying judicial release. Now that her brother is headed back to prison, Jones says she believes Nadel's motivation is clear.

"My personal opinion is Nadel wanted Thomas to say before the court that he didn't have permission and he did this on his own so he can help the county out," Jones says.

'Art is worth the suffering'
In an interview at the Justice Center prior to learning his fate, Condon was optimistic.

"The judicial release law was made, it was created, for someone in my position," he said.

The theory of judicial release, also known as shock parole, is some prisoners are so shocked by incarceration that they are unlikely to break the law again.

Condon's attorney, Louis Sirkin, presented a remorseful Condon at the hearing before Nadel.

"Tom indicates that he doesn't blame anyone but himself for where he's at," Sirkin said.

Sirkin asked that Condon be placed under community control — formerly known as probation — adding that Condon wanted to spend his time trying to help others.

Screaming through a glass partition July 26, Condon tried to finish an interview with a reporter in an area set aside for visits. Prisoners get 15-minute visits through a glass partition, speaking through phones. When the 15 minutes end, the phone line connecting a visitor and inmate shuts off without warning. Then you're left to rely on makeshift sign language and shouting through the glass.

Condon pointed out the answer to Nadel's question was in the transcript he held up at the hearing. During his sentencing, Condon had told Nadel he had an understanding with the coroner's office that he was allowed to work on his project.

His story, he says, is the truth and isn't changing no matter how many times the judge might ask.

"I'm not gonna lie," Condon said. "My story has been the same from day one."

Besides, he points out, Nadel's question is unrelated to the issue of judicial release.

"What's the holdup?" Condon said. "What am I not eligible for?"

In prison, Condon says, one can get a disciplinary ticket for walking on the left side of the hall instead of the right side. Condon says he had nothing on his records against him.

"I've done everything that's required of me, and it's time for it to be over," he said.

Although devastated to learn that he would be returning to Noble, Jones says Condon still feels art is worth the suffering.

"I wanted to just choke him when he said that," she says.

Jones says that her family definitely thought Condon would be released July 29.

"I think (Nadel) was just playing mind games with him by bringing him down," she says.

The typical — and humane — thing to do would be to deny the request for a hearing if Nadel hadn't intended to let Condon out, according to one of his attorneys, Jennifer Kinsley.

"Does it happen?" she says. "Sure. Is it the usual course of business? No. We all kind of had our hopes up — and falsely, I guess. We're terribly disappointed and we're going to keep fighting for him."

Briefs for Condon's appeal are due Aug. 27. His lawyers will also try again to get the appeals court to grant stay on the sentence, Kinsley says.

From jail, Condon sent Jones an Oscar Wilde quote for CityBeat: "If you tell the truth, sooner or later you will be found out." ©

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