WASHINGTON -- Gay pornography found on the computer of a Navy doctor can be submitted as evidence in his trial on charges that he made secret video recordings of Naval Academy midshipmen having sex in his Annapolis home, a military judge ruled yesterday in a decision that could put the physician's career in jeopardy.
Even if Cmdr. Kevin Ronan is found innocent at the conclusion of his trial this month, the emergence of such evidence often triggers a military investigation into a service member's sexual orientation. Open homosexuality is grounds for being thrown out of the military.
Ronan is charged with seven counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, three counts of illegal wiretapping and one count of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors say the pornography establishes a motive for the alleged surreptitious taping of the midshipmen.
Defense attorneys for Ronan, who hosted midshipmen in his home as part of a Naval Academy program, had fought to keep the evidence out of his trial, saying prosecutors couldn't prove he was the one who downloaded the material and that the suggestion he might be gay would turn the jury against him.
"The effect of this is going to be to suggest, `This is a bad person, he's got homosexual tendencies, and we certainly don't want him in the Navy,'" William Ferris, Ronan's civilian attorney, said in the Washington Navy Yard courtroom. He went on to note the uproar over the recent comments of Gen. Peter Pace, the nation's former top uniformed officer, who said he believed homosexual behavior was "immoral."
"There is a strong prejudice against homosexuals in the military," Ferris said.
Ronan briefly took the stand. He denied any knowledge of the videos or pictures and said he didn't know how they came to be on his computer. He noted at one point that about a dozen midshipmen regularly stayed in his home in their free time, and Ferris asserted that any of them could have downloaded the pornography.
Ronan was not asked about his sexual orientation.
Marine Col. Steven Day, the judge in the case, acknowledged that admitting the evidence could be harmful to the defense case but agreed with prosecutors that the reasons for allowing it outweighed any potential bias, which he said he would limit with jury instructions and by carefully screening jurors.
The images and videos could be used to prove motive, Day said, and could show "possible need on his part" to view "young, athletic males" engaged in sexual activity.
Day also ruled that the evidence was admissible because the images and videos were found in a file labeled "lectures" on a computer seized from Ronan's home, the same label on the DVD allegedly recovered from his home that depicts one midshipman having sex with his girlfriend and another masturbating.
Handwriting analysis on the disc, Day said, showed the word "lectures" was written by Ronan.
Prosecutors began the evidence hearing by calling a forensic computer analyst from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, who said he recovered hundreds of commercial homosexual videos from Ronan's computer and thousands of similar images.
Michael Wavada, the analyst, acknowledged under cross examination that he could not prove Ronan was responsible for the taping, although he testified that Ronan appeared to be a member of a Yahoo Group celebrating the career of Brent Everett, a gay porn star. Prosecutors displayed an e-mail to what Wavada identified as Ronan's account that showed a payment to an Everett Web site.
On the stand, Ronan denied making the payment and said his identity had been stolen and several unauthorized purchases had been made during the time this evidence surfaced. When prosecutors asked whether Ronan accessed a pornographic Web site from his computer about 4:50 a.m. one morning - something the computer analysis showed was done - Ronan said he did not, and that he had left for work very early that morning.
Though his testimony was limited to the evidence questions weighed yesterday, Ronan hinted at a defense that likely will figure prominently into his court-martial: that the videos were planted as part of a former midshipman's efforts to blackmail him.
Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a legal advocacy group that assists gays and lesbians in the military, said evidence of pornography on Ronan's computer could be enough to lead to an investigation into his sexual orientation. Such inquiries often end with the service member being kicked out of the military, he said.