'Star Wars' photographer endures US jail nightmare

 

Freelance photographer Steve Morgan has emerged from six days in a 15-yard square Californian jail cell with 35 other prisoners, shackled and handcuffed, to fight charges which could end in an 11-year prison sentence.

Morgan, an environmental photographer who has worked for most of the UK nationals, notably The Independent, was arrested while photographing a Greenpeace protest against the recent Star0Wars missile test at Vandenberg US Air Force base.

The FBI made no distinction between him and arrested activists, even though he showed them his press credentials.

He appeared at a Los Angeles federal court to face charges of conspiracy to violate a safety zone and failure to adhere to the base commander’s instructions. The first is a Class D felony charge which carries a minimum five-year jail term and a maximum of 10 years. It could also carry a fine of up to $250,000. The second charge is a misdemeanour carrying a maximum one-year jail term and a maximum $5,000 fine.

Morgan, who was documenting the demonstration for the charity to sell to agencies, was freed on restricted bail and his passport confiscated.

He told Press Gazette from an LA hotel: "It was not an experience I wish to repeat in a hurry. I was shocked and disappointed the authorities felt they had to do this sort of thing."

He has a pre-trial hearing on 13 August when he hopes his status as a journalist will be recognised.

This week, his wife Heather was organising his defence in London. She has already staged a protest against her husband’s arrest outside Buckingham Palace when President George W Bush lunched with the Queen on 19 July.

Now she is to fly to the US, taking with her letters from executives of, among others, The Times, The Independent, Frank Spooner Pictures (now owned by Gamma) and the Consumers’ Association which make clear her husband is a journalist. The letters will be used in court as part of Morgan’s defence.

The 45-year-old photographer has freelanced for 20 years and is well known for his coverage of environmental issues. The US Government prosecutor had objected to him having bail but the motion was denied on Thursday of last week and Morgan was released 24 hours later.

He finds the whole process of US justice cumbersome – "nothing happens quickly". The cell in Kern County jail, where he was held, had toilets and bunks and exercise was restricted to one hour twice a week.

"I am very anxious, particularly for my family. It is putting them through undue pressure. I won’t be doing this sort of work again," said Morgan.

Heather Morgan told Press Gazette: "He is obviously relieved to be out of prison but he is extremely concerned about the charges and doesn’t feel he has committed any crime." She intends taking sons George, 4, and Harry, 3, with her to LA. They stood with her outside Buckingham Palace carrying protest placards.

"They have been a wonderful support to me," said Morgan. "I rely on their backup."

By Jean Morgan

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