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Morgue ‘Art’ Cost Taxpayers $8 Million

OHIO -- A miniature ladder inside the cut-open skull of a corpse; a key placed in a dead woman’s open mouth; snails, fruit, doll house furniture and sheet music arranged on corpses. Thomas Condon claims the photos were art but the courts see them as gross abuse of a corpse and Hamilton County Board of Commissioners calls the affair a ‘long County nightmare’.


The nightmare may soon come to an end if U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel approves the settlement reached by Hamilton County Ohio and the families of 532 people whose dead bodies were allegedly misused by Condon for his so-called "Cycle of Life" photo project.

The county agreed Tuesday to pay $8 million over a two year period to settle a lawsuit over photos taken of posed bodies in the county morgue during late 1999 and early 2000. The settlement also includes grief counseling, a memorial and the offensive photos must be destroyed.

Condon photographed bodies at the Hamilton County morgue for his so-called "Cycle of Life" artistic photo project, saying he believed he had permission to do so. But county officials, including former County Coroner Dr. Carl L. Parrott, contended that Condon never received permission for that specific project and he was there only to do a training video. The training video was scrapped, but Condon still was allowed access to the facility. Condon was caught after employees at Robin Imaging Services called police after developing what they thought were suspicious photographs.

He was convicted in 2001 of eight counts of gross abuse of a corpse for taking the pictures. His 2 1/2-year sentence was reduced to 18 months on appeal. He served less than a year in prison.

Attorneys Stan Chesley and Al Gerhardstein filed the class action case against former Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Carl Parrott and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in 2001.

“If this case had gone to trial as scheduled next month, the verdict easily could have been three times the settlement amount,” Gerhardstein said in a joint statement of County officials and plaintiff attorneys.

“The County Commissioners acted wisely and responsibly in closing this sad chapter in the history of the County,” Chesley said adding praise for current county Coroner Dr. O’Dell Owens, “Dr. Owens has acted aggressively to correct the mistakes of previous coroners.”


Family members will also talk with Owens - who beat Parrott with 52.8 percent of the vote in the November 2004 election - about making changes in the way his office does business. Among changes the families are seeking: reopening the morgue viewing room, securing grief counseling for family members who come to the morgue, establishing an advisory panel and a memorial to the photographed corpses at the morgue's offices to remind staff of the dignity with which they should treat bodies in their care.

This settlement marks the third time since 2001 that the county has paid damages for misdeeds in the coroner’s office that predate the previous administration.

The first two cases cost county taxpayers $5.25 million, once for a cornea removal without family approval, and a $6 million settlement for body organ removal without notice to families.

The current settlement, based on unauthorized manipulation and photography of bodies over a four month period in the morgue, is viewed by both sides as a fair compromise, particularly with the focus on continuing improvement at the Coroner’s Office, according to the joint statement.

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