A former Orange County judge collapsed in a Los Angeles federal courtroom Tuesday moments after being sentenced to 27 months in prison for possessing child pornography, bringing a dramatic end to a case that tested privacy rights and nearly fell apart because of a computer hacker's role in the investigation.
Ronald C. Kline was standing with his hands in his pockets and swaying slightly as U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall indicated he would do prison time. Kline's knees suddenly buckled, and he fell backward, with his eyes closed, into the arms of one of his attorneys.
A nurse and paramedics rushed to the courtroom. . They monitored his heart and administered other tests on the 66-year-old Kline. He was on his feet about a half-hour later, and his attorneys said he was well enough to sit through the rest of the hearing.
When it resumed, Marshall also ordered Kline to serve three years of strictly supervised probation. During that time, he cannot use the Internet or possess any technology -- including a cellphone -- that would allow Internet access without prior written approval.
Other conditions bar him from lingering within 100 feet of schools, parks and other common gathering points for children under 18. He must also register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Marshall said she based her ruling on a variety of factors, including a recommendation by probation officers that Kline serve from 27 to 33 months, the seriousness of the offense, Kline's lack of prior criminal history and his acceptance of responsibility.
Assistant U.S. Attys. Gregory W. Staples and Deirdre Z. Eliot said they were satisfied with the sentence, even though they had asked for the maximum 33 months.
The prosecutors spent a good deal of the hearing chronicling Kline's pursuit of an 18-year-old man he met while both were enrolled last year at a treatment center for sexual disorders. Kline had been ordered by the facility's staff to stay at least 10 feet away from the teen, who is described in court records as emotionally and developmentally disabled. Instead, Kline wrote him letters and asked him to move in.
Kline's attorneys were seeking probation for their client, arguing that he had accepted responsibility and was voluntarily undergoing rigorous treatment for what they described as a sex addiction. . They repeatedly pointed out that Kline broke no laws by interacting with the 18-year-old, who was legally an adult.
"This is a tragic case," said Paul S. Meyer, one of his attorneys. "Our client has obviously suffered throughout this entire ordeal."
Kline, who has been confined to his Irvine home and has had to wear an electronic monitoring device since his arrest, was ordered to surrender to U.S. marshals by May 21. He has never spoken publicly about the allegations. Given the chance to address the court Tuesday, Kline said he owed an apology to society in general and people he had met over the years.
"The problem is, I can't think of a way to say it to make any of it right," he said. "It would be a lifetime of apologies for what I did."
Appointed to the Orange County Superior Court bench in 1995, Kline enjoyed an impeccable reputation as a civil judge and was running unopposed for his second six-year term until he was arrested in November 2001 and charged with seven counts of possessing child pornography on his home and courthouse computers.
The investigation began after Bradley Willman, a Canadian hacker who saw himself as a computer cop, used a virus to gain access to Kline's home computer and download explicit diary excerpts about the judge's sexual desires and more than 1,500 pornographic photos of young boys.
Willman forwarded his findings to a Colorado-based Internet watchdog group, Pedowatch, which contacted Irvine police. Warrants were obtained months later that allowed searches of Kline's home and courthouse computers.
The case became a national spectacle and set the stage for one of Orange County's strangest elections. Talk radio hosts Ken and John of KFI-AM (640) set up a makeshift studio outside Kline's home, reading his diary entries in their daily broadcasts and urging voters to elect one of eleven write-in candidates challenging him for the judicial seat.
After the widespread publicity surrounding Kline's arrest, a former neighbor came forward with allegations that he was molested by Kline 25 years earlier. That case was dismissed in 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a California law that had waived statutory limits for old sex crimes.
That same year, the federal case also appeared to have collapsed amid a legal debate centered primarily on the credibility of the computer hacker and the timing of his "break-in."
Prosecutors argued that Willman played a limited role in their investigation and worked independently of any police agency. But defense attorneys equated Willman to a government agent and said his computer invasions were a "21st century wiretap" to secretly monitor, remove and deliver incriminating files to police.
In separate rulings, Marshall sided with the defense and suppressed the diary excerpts and photos found on his home and courthouse computers, concluding that the evidence was the fruit of the earlier illegal search of Kline's home computer by the hacker, who saw himself as working for police. And, she concluded, as an agent for the police, that hacker had needed a warrant to conduct the search legally.
But prosecutors appealed her decision. And in October 2004, the case was resurrected by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In an unpublished opinion, the justices ruled that the Canadian hacker was not working for the police when he accessed the judge's hard drives and therefore did not violate Kline's privacy rights. They found that even though there was ample evidence to support the contention that Willman was acting with the intent to assist law enforcement, there was no evidence that any police agency knew of his search beforehand.
In December 2005, months after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Kline's appeal, he pleaded guilty to four counts of possessing child pornography on his home computer and computer disks.