For Mercado and her family, last fall was a happy time, one they wanted to record and save in the venerable tradition of the family photo. Johnny Fernandez, Mercado's boyfriend, had just emigrated from Lima, Peru, ending a yearlong separation, and on top of that, it was their son's first birthday.
The photographs they took over several days in late October included pictures of Fernandez reunited with the family at their modest home in suburban Richardson. Others captured their 1-year-old son Rodrigo, and 4-year-old Pablizio, from Mercado's earlier marriage, playing in a neighborhood park. Using the camera's timer, they also took three snapshots of themselves, naked in their bed. They arranged their bodies in ways that showed less flesh than most freeway billboards.
A half-dozen others recorded the kids at bath time. Fernandez took several photos of the boys "playing around," naked and innocent, with the oldest flashing a big smile. Mercado, who says she often bathed with the kids, is in several of the shots unclothed from the waist up, holding her arm modestly across her bare chest.
In one--the photo that would threaten to send Mercado and her boyfriend to prison--the infant Rodrigo is suckling her left breast.
After Mercado dropped off the film for processing, a technician viewed the images and decided they were "suspicious," according to a police report. As required under Texas law, he immediately contacted local police. Mercado says that when she went to pick up her pictures, the clerk told her there would be a delay, and then only returned three of the four sets of prints.
To Richardson police, who arrived at the store that afternoon and apparently made up their minds from the content of the pictures alone, this was nothing short of a felony case of child pornography. "We thought they contained sexuality," says Sergeant Danny Martin, a Richardson police spokesman, explaining why two Richardson police detectives began pursuing a criminal case. "If you saw the photos, you'd know what I mean."
With nothing else to support their contention that the photos were related to sex or sexual gratification, the police and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office presented the photos to a grand jury in January and came away with indictments against Mercado and Fernandez for "sexual performance of a child," a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The charges centered on a single photo, the breast-feeding shot. Fernandez and Mercado say they took it--although the child had ceased breast-feeding--to memorialize that stage of their baby's development.
"We wanted to see if he would take it, and he did," says Mercado, explaining through an interpreter that it was a spur-of-the moment notion to which they gave little thought. "Johnny never saw the child breast-feeding, so this was for memories. For us."
Mercado, who brushed back strands of brown hair from her reddened eyes as she spoke, has a story that has not changed from the start. She told the Richardson police officer who responded to the store's call that she had always taken pictures of her children nude, and that it wasn't uncommon in her native Peru to do so. They were innocent baby pictures, taken for the family's benefit, she said.
Five days later, when a state child welfare investigator and two detectives arrived at her house, Mercado again insisted that she saw nothing wrong with the photos. She allowed the group to search the couple's cramped room, and the detectives went through everything, including their photo albums, apparently looking for more evidence of child porn. They found nothing.
"We fought so hard to come to this country," says Mercado, a 33-year-old who was a nurse in Peru and aspires to become licensed in the United States one day. "For this to happen is unbelievable."
Andrew Chatham, one of three lawyers working on behalf of Mercado and her boyfriend, says it is difficult to imagine a clearer case of over-reaching by police and prosecutors. "Their theory, which is supported by nothing, is that these pictures were taken to satisfy the boyfriend's sexual desires. These aren't pictures that were peddled on the open market. This wasn't on someone's Web site. This is just a mother who took a roll of film and left it off at Eckerd's. The state used them to arrest her, indict her for a felony and take away her kids."
On November 13, the day Richardson police "tossed" or searched Mercado's house, a caseworker with the Dallas County Child Protective Services Unit of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services took custody of the children and recommended to a family judge that they be placed in a foster home. The caseworker's notes state that a supervisor, acting on the content of the photos alone, decided that "the children needed to be removed from their mother's care."