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Former Wharton professor Scott Ward pled guilty in federal court yesterday to producing child pornography for importation into the United States.

Ward, who has been held in custody since August, is scheduled for sentencing May 11.

His trial was expected to begin in Alexandria, Va., next Monday.

Ward's charge carries a sentence of 15 to 30 years in prison, according to a press release issued by the U.S. District Attorney's Office in Virginia.

"Our children are at risk from predators not just in our state or in our country, but around the world," U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said in the press release. "This is a disturbing crime, and it is without borders."

Ward's lawyers did not return repeated calls for comment.

Philadelphia criminal attorney Patrick Artur, who is not involved in the case, said that Ward likely pled guilty because of the overwhelming evidence in the prosecution's favor.

Police reports indicate that, prior to Ward's arrest, customs officials had grown suspicious of his frequent trips to Thailand, a known destination for child-predator sex tourists.

When Ward - who had faced previous charges of sexual misconduct - arrived at Dulles International Airport on Aug. 27 from a trip to Brazil, a routine search revealed child pornography on his computer. Further examination turned up a digital camcorder and accompanying mini-DVDs that showed Ward engaged in sexual acts with an underaged boy.

"The facts seemed to be against him," he said.

Even if the defense had pushed forward with a not-guilty plea, Artur added, there would be little evidence to sustain Ward's case.

If the case had gone to trial, the defense might have attempted to prove the search of Ward's luggage by customs officials unlawful. But because those officials are not subject to normal search requirements, "search-and-seizure issues are out the window," Artur said.

Alternatively, he said, the defense might have argued that the other person in Ward's videos was not a child at all.

But Artur said this claim would also have likely fallen through because failing to prove the child's age with a birth certificate is not a sufficient argument for Ward's acquittal.

After all, various accounts by law enforcement officials had already indicated that the child appeared to be between 14 and 16 years old.

Artur added that the guilty plea might have been a strategic move by a defense that knew it couldn't win.

Ward still faces additional charges in Pennsylvania stemming from the discovery of alleged additional child pornography in his Huntsman Hall office in September, and his guilty plea in Virginia will probably eliminate the need for another trial "since they're both federal cases and it's essentially the same crime," Artur said.

If the defense had litigated and lost Ward's case in both Virginia and Pennsylvania, Artur explained, Ward might have been given two consecutive sentences.

But by entering a single guilty plea, he said, Ward might be able to serve his Virginia and Pennsylvania sentences concurrently.

As for Ward's May sentencing, Artur said he expects the punishment to be severe.

"Production [of child pornography] gets you [the] mandatory minimum" of 15 years, he said, and "the prior conviction's not going to help him."

Ward was acquitted in 1995 of charges that he paid a teenage prostitute for sex.

In 1999, Ward was charged with soliciting sex from a state trooper posing as a teenage boy. He pled that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict him, but did not admit guilt, and was fined $2,500 and sentenced to five years' probation.

Artur said that Ward's only chance of avoiding a sentence of 15 years or more would be to have his sentence demandatorized - meaning that the judge could go below the regular sentencing guidelines.

But an attempt to get the sentence shortened would be "a real uphill battle," he said, adding that, "if they get it demandatorize, . you're [still] going to see a sentence in excess of 10 years."

A former Marketing professor, Ward had already retired from Penn at the time of his arrest but was still teaching classes through an annual appointment.

University officials announced in August that Ward would no longer teach at Penn.

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