Ward, 57, admitted to Judge Vaughn Walker as part of his plea agreement that he sent between 15 and 150 images of child pornography via e-mail.
The charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and a possible maximum of 20 years. Doron Weinberg, Ward's defense lawyer, said he expects Ward to spend at least four years and three months in prison even with credit for good behavior.
Ward was to go before a jury in Walker's court on June 9. Originally charged last year with two other counts of receiving and attempting to send child pornography in January 2005. Those charges are to be dropped in the plea bargain.
The defense told the judge that Ward's use of pornography occurred "in a few weeks in 2004 and 2005" and reflected "an error in judgment rather than sexual proclivity."
Walker will sentence Ward Aug. 28.
Ward is a former Catholic priest and teacher, lives in San Francisco, is married and has four children. He worked in radio for about 20 years and had a loyal following for his weeknightly political show and Godtalk, on Sunday mornings. Both shows were on KGO.
He originally claimed that he was looking at the illegal material researching a book on hypocrisy. The defense filed a motion asking the court to allow Ward to argue that his actions were protected by the First Amendment.
The defense team concluded that courts would not allow that argument. "He thought it was legal to do it as a journalist, but our conclusion was that the courts wouldn't accept that," Weinberg told reporters Thursday.
"Bernie is not a sexual predator," he said.
But the indictment, once unsealed with its damning transcripts of online chats, made Ward's original claim of book research on hypocritical Republicans really hard to swallow, and knocked the underpinnings from any free speech defense.
The chats were not with some closeted Republican honcho-pervert, but with "Sexfairy," a small-town dominatrix who immediately blew the whistle upon receipt of kiddie porn from Bernie.
It's Christmas week, three years ago. Ward's on his home computer using the screen name "Vincentlio." He begins the chat with "Good afternoon, mistress." The woman using the name "Sexfairy" answers, "How was your day, slave?" In explicit detail, Ward describes being humiliated sexually. At one point, he asks, "Are you going to make me feel dirty, mistress?" "Sexfairy" answers, "Yes, I am."
Ward discusses group sex he had at an infamous porn theater in San Mateo. Then, nearly an hour into the conversation, he brings up photographs, "I love trading pictures." "Sexfairy" answers, "and why haven't I gotten any pics, slave? Send me some."
Ward sends several pictures -- one of a woman and two children. Ward describes her as a mother in her late thirties, she's topless. He says the naked boy is 14, that the girl wearing clothes is 12. They're all touching in a sexual way.
"Sexfairy" writes, "brb," (be right back). A half hour later, she's on the phone with police, reporting Bernie Ward for child porn. They tell her to keep chatting with Ward.
"It would be important to the case to gather as much information as possible in support of bringing charges against the person that's sending these pornographic messages," says Chief West.
In the days that follow, "Sexfairy" asks Ward for more pictures -- he complies. Then, police get a search warrant for Ward's AOL account. E-mail sent and received by "Vincentlio" had pictures attached.
An investigator writes, "several of the photographs depicted children engaged in or simulating sexual acts with adults or other children." The ages of the children in the pictures -- four to 17 years old.
This is really a sad story. We doubt very seriously that Bernie Ward is a sexual predator in the clinical sense, but only in the strict, zero-tolerance of the strict federal laws.
The fairness of these laws, and the mandatory sentencing which throws a weak-willed Bernie in with the child rapists may be questioned, and debated.
But the fact remains he was passing these pictures around in a situation that appears as if he was sexually indulging himself; he lied about it, and tried to couch it in Constitiutional terms. That provides him little cover, especially as a hypocrisy hunter.
Still, five years in the federal penitentiary for what in essence is a
crime about masturbation is heavy, and tempering justice in a case like this should be what a
judge's discretionary powers are about.
Too bad for Bernie and his family that the judge in this case has none.