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Judge charges freelance photographer with contempt

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Judge charges freelance photographer with contempt

  • A circuit court judge who twice seized a photojournalist’s film for allegedly photographing a juror has ordered the photographer to appear in court on contempt charges later this month.

June 15, 2004 — An aspiring Arkansas photojournalist must appear in court on contempt charges June 28 after a judge seized his film for allegedly taking pictures of jurors outside a courthouse last month.

Circuit Court Judge Harold Erwin ordered freelance photographer Chris Townsend’s film seized on two occasions during a murder trial in Pocahontas, Ark. Erwin accused Townsend of photographing jurors outside the courthouse on May 17 and 21, and ordered Randolph County Chief Deputy Sheriff Gary Tribble to take the film each time.

During the trial, Erwin barred photographers from taking photos inside the courtroom.

After the first incident, Erwin had the film developed, then returned the negatives and prints — minus the print of the juror — to Townsend. Townsend, 22, said he never intended to take the juror’s picture, and agreed after the first encounter that he would not photograph any juror.

“I set up my camera and snapped a shot for distance, and the juror walked in front and I just barely got her in the picture,” he said. Townsend said he was photographing the trial in the hope that he could sell images to a newspaper or media outlet.

On May 21, Erwin and Tribble approached Townsend outside the courthouse during a recess and demanded that he surrender his film and camera, Townsend said. Erwin then called Townsend to his chambers, where he cited him for contempt of court and ordered him to stay out of the courthouse for the remainder of the trial.

Townsend was able to take his camera when he left, but said Erwin kept his film and has not yet returned it. Townsend said he did not take any photographs of jurors that day, and that the seized film contains mostly nature photos.

Erwin did not return multiple phone calls to his office seeking comment.

When Townsend declined to surrender his camera and film on May 21, Tribble twisted Townsend’s arm and placed his hands on Townsend’s chest, according to reports by The Jonesboro Sun and The Associated Press. Townsend added that one television photographer captured the incident on video.

Townsend said he filed assault complaints with the Pocahontas Police Department against the city of Pocahontas, Tribble and Erwin. He has not yet hired an attorney, but said he plans to do so prior to his June 28 court appearance.


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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