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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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June062007

Julie Amero Granted New Trial

This morning, a Connecticut judge granted substitute teacher Julie Amero a new trial. She’ll now have a chance to present evidence that she accidentally exposed students to online porn due to malware.

The Norwich Bulletin broke the news a few minutes after the sentencing hearing began at 10am eastern today:

Judge Hillary Strackbein this morning granted a motion for a new trial for Julie Amero.

The judge’s decision is based on evidence that shows some of the computer evidence shown at court was inaccurate.

A new trial date has not been set. Amero has entered a not guilty plea.

According to the paper, the state prosecutor acknowledges that “some erroneous information” may have been presented at trial. The judge added that the possibility of inaccurate evidence, “entitles to a new trial in the interest of justice.”

Smiling with her attorney, Amero told reporters, “I feel very comfortable with the decision.”

Last January, Amero was convicted on four counts of risk of injury to a minor for an October 2004 incident at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Connecticut. Pornographic images appeared on Amero’s computer, and six students testified they glimpsed the images. Amero has argued from the start that she did not access the images intentionally, but prosecutors managed to convince a jury that this was not the case. It was only after her conviction that Internet security experts began offering their own analysis, suggesting that Amero’s computer had been infected with malware, which would have displayed the images automatically. The defense’s own Internet security expert was not allowed to testify during the trial.

“Evidence heard by the jury and the state’s theory of liability are materially inconsistent with evidence discovered after the verdicts and now in the possession of the state and the defense,” defense attorney William Dow III said in the motion. He continued:

The state and the defense now possess additional forensic evidence concerning the history of the computer’s use both before and after the alleged incident. Had that information been available to the state at the time of the trial, the state … would not have urged the jury to reach certain inaccurate conclusions regarding … the alleged purposeful access to offensive Web sites. In the interests of justice, the jury’s verdict must be set aside.

The judge’s decision to grant a new trial is a major victory for Amero and her defense team. In recent weeks there had been much speculation that the defense was seeking some kind of compromise with prosecutors, one that would set aside her conviction and jail time. These negotiations failed to produce a satisfactory result for the defense, possibly because prosecutors would have insisted on Amero acknowledging some level of criminal culpability, even if it didn’t entail a jail sentence.

Though this is a good day for Amero, it is not necessarily the best outcome, which would have been to set aside the conviction and end the proceedings. Though Amero will now be allowed to present additional evidence from security experts that backs up her claims, she’ll still have to go through a full trial. And given the fact the trial date hasn’t been set yet, it’s quite possible this saga will drag on for many more months. Nancy Willard, the online safety expert who is also an attorney, offered this pessimistic assessment yesterday, not long after the defense submitted the new trial motion:

If any of you live in Connecticut, I suggest that you start talking about how to address life after the Internet. Given what I know the prosecutors now know for absolute certainty — Julie’s computer had spyware and got into a porn trap — none of you should feel safe using a computer in the classroom. The fact that it appears the state is not willing to vacate the conviction, it appears that the standard in Connecticut is that teachers should be arrested if a computer they are responsible for accidentally accesses porn and they do not do exactly what the prosecutor thinks is the appropriate response — even if their response is largely successful.

Today, Nancy speculated that a new trial isn’t certain, and it’s possible the case will be thrown out at one point or another. Nonetheless, she said, Connecticut educators should still be on guard:

Teachers in Connecticut, please note. If this legal standard is not repudiated by the criminal justice folks in your state, you likely should not ever use a computer at school. Because at some point in time, even if people have made best efforts, the “system” will fail and students will see brief glimpses of porn.

So while today should be seen as a victory for Amero and her supporters, Nancy’s points shouldn’t be ignored. As she suggests, the whole reason Amero will have to face a new trial is because prosecutors were not willing to acknowledge their own mistakes in trying her in the first place. Amero will get another shot at justice, but it remains to be seen if Connecticut educators can rest easy just yet. -andy

Filed under : People, Safety

Responses

Thank you for staying on top of this story, Andy. I’ve been following it since January, but you’re the only one who’s been posting regular updates.

There is a new one-page educational document on the web site for my parent’s book, Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens at http://cyber-safe-kids.com/faqs/ that can be downloaded and provided to teachers and parents addressing accidental access. This issue is also addressed in the Parent’s and Teen’s guides on this site — which address other concerns as well.

Also on http://csriu.org there are two documents: One a factual analysis of the case and the other is guidance on how schools can help to better prevent and respond to the problem of accidental access.

Nancy Willard, M.S., J.D.
Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use
http://csriu.org
http://cyber-safe-kids.com
nwillard@csriu.org

Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding to the Challenge of Online Social Aggression, Threats, and Distress (Research Press)

Cyber-Safe Kids, Cyber-Savvy Teens: Helping Young People Learn to Use the Internet Safely and Responsibly (Jossey-Bass)

I was wondering what was currently happening in her case. She has a Wikipedia entry now. According to it she was granted a new trial last month and the date hasn’t been set yet, so I Googled “Julie Amero new trial” (with my secured operating system and web browser of course) and came up with this newer blog post of Andy’s. I’m glad to see that her case hasn’t been forgotten.

My defense of her is simple:
First of all it’s just basic psychology; normal women don’t usually like porn, and when they do feel like viewing it they do so in private and most likely while drinking (that’s my wife’s “modus operandi” anyway!). When that classroom computer was overtaken Mrs. Amero may have became confused and flustered, and in her panic wasn’t thinking clear enough to simply “cover up” or “turn off the monitor”. (I’ve read that she had an AOL email account. That tells me that she was most likely not very computer savvy as well, but she shouldn’t need to be. There’s a reason many businesses restrict access to the internet, the security upkeep can become costly and time consuming.)

My second point is this; just from people I know personally and from what I see in computer tech forums, the average person that does know how to use a computer knows little about malware. The jury pool may end up consisting of a combination of completely computer illiterate people and average users with little experience. In other criminal trials the forensic evidence gathering and testing procedure is carefully and thoroughly explained to the jury. In this case the functions of malware need to be explained to the jury in the same way for them to come to an informed conclusion about Mrs. Amero’s culpability.

My third point; even if Mrs. Amero did access her email account and other innocuous sites herself, she shouldn’t be liable for everything that ensued. Again, I truly doubt that she would intentionally visit a porn site. (If she would even be able to, that would mean that any student accessing that computer would be able to as well, which again puts the blame on the lack of proper security for the school’s network.)

There’s a reason that this case is discussed more and has more publicity in the online community than in the regular media, computer knowledgeable people know what malware can do. Anyone that doubts how quickly and thoroughly an unprotected computer can be overtaken only needs to take a look at this video.

I rest my case. Good luck, Julie!

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