Acclaimed Titanic oceanographer William Kenneth Stewart told a federal judge Thursday that his professional career has been destroyed by his arrest last year on a charge of receiving child pornography over the Internet.
"I convinced myself that looking, there was no harm to it," Stewart, 62, testified in U.S. District Court, where he also recalled his tenure with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and, starting in 1999, his work as a chief scientist and chief consulting engineer at the South Florida Water Management District.
U.S. Senior Judge Kenneth Ryskamp listened to Stewart's story and sentenced Stewart, of West Palm Beach, to seven years in prison followed by 15 years of probation. That sentence is far less than a the 20-year maximum prison term Stewart faced.
Stewart, his white hair short and wearing blue prison clothes, acknowledged having collected child pornography images for the past 12 years, keeping a catalogue of more than 22,000 images, including bondage and other graphic images.
During questioning from his lawyer, Dean Wilbur, Stewart told the court that the activity, used for personal gratification, never escalated to physical contact and he never had any desire to have sexual relations with minors. Wilbur had asked for a sentence of five years.
"It's illegal, it's wrong," said Stewart of sex with minors. He pleaded guilty to the pornography charge earlier this year.
Stewart's resume fills 11 pages, covering a remarkable 40-year career that began with a doctorate in oceanographic engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He later was among the first group of scientists to explore the Titanic in 1986, the year after it was discovered a team led by Woods Hole scientist Robert Ballard.
The South Florida Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force found Stewart, a divorced father of one, was heavily involved in the illicit world of child pornography. Police came to his apartment Sept. 8, 2011, with a search warrant to seize Stewart's computer hard drives.
Prosecutors said Stewart's collection included all ages of children, beginning with infants. The majority of the pictures were of girls ranging in age from 8 to 12.
Stewart's family members, including his ex-wife, wrote pre-sentencing letters on his behalf, urging the judge to show leniency. On Thursday, a sister, Kathy Stewart, told Judge Ryskamp that she agreed the charges were "disgusting to our society." But she said her brother was remorseful.
"He has said from the beginning how sorry he was," Kathy Stewart said.