Skip to comments.The Prosecution of Julie Amero - What the railroading of a teacher by technically inept police...
Posted on 12/14/2008 10:05:30 PM PST by neverdem
What the railroading of a teacher by technically inept police and prosecutors reveals about the criminal justice system
In October 2004, Julie Amero, a substitute teacher in Norwich, Connecticut, was teaching a seventh grade language class. While Amero was using a laptop computer—one accessible to both students and teacher—the computer began spinning off pop-up ads for pornographic websites. Amero concedes she was checking her email and surfing the Internet while she was supposed to be teaching. Perhaps that makes her a bad substitute teacher (though she had taught at the school for a year and a half without incident). But it doesn’t make her a sex offender.
Yet in January 2007 Amero was convicted on four counts on the ambiguous charge of "risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child." Her ridiculous prosecution is the product of a Puritanical, zero tolerance hysteria; stubborn, obstinate police and prosecutors; and a criminal justice system that hasn’t adequately adapted to modern technology.
Prosecutors in the case improbably contended that Amero—who had no prior criminal record and was seven months pregnant at the time—intentionally exposed her class of seventh-graders to Internet pornography. She faced up to 40 years in prison.
Even if Amero had knowingly and willingly exposed her middle school class to pornography, she should at worst have lost her job, and perhaps faced a fine and revocation of her teaching license. That she could have spent most of the rest of her life in prison says she was either over-charged, or was charged with a ridiculously stupid law. Probably both.
But Amero insists she never intended for her class to be an Internet-abetted lesson in sex education, and there’s plenty of reason to believe her. She says she panicked when a loop of unwanted pop-up ads from porn sites began to appear while she was using the computer in front of her students. The more Amero frantically tried to close the ads, the more they kept springing up—a problem not at all uncommon on computers lacking up-to-date firewalls and virus protection.
What’s particularly troubling about Amero’s case isn’t necessarily the technical ignorance of the police and prosecutors—though that's troubling enough—but the fact that their ignorance seems almost willful. The state pointed out at trial that the school had put filtering software on its computers. But the school had also let the licenses for that software expire. It would have taken no more than a phone call with the Best Buy "Geek Squad" to learn that if filtering software isn’t updated, it's quickly rendered useless.
Early last year, after her conviction, Amero’s case caught fire on tech blogs and Internet message boards. Computer security experts across the country quickly recognized what had happened: Amero’s computer had been infected with malware, invasive software that can take control of a computer, often redirecting web browsers to porn sites. Police and prosecutors conceded that they hadn’t even bothered to test the computer for malicious software. Dozens of tech gurus volunteered to help with Amero’s defense. When they were finally able to examine her computer, they found what they suspected—it was infested with malware.
But it gets worse. The state’s expert witness, a computer crimes investigator with the Norwich Police Department, testified that because the URLs for the offending sites were "highlighted," Amero must have deliberately clicked on them. State’s Attorney David Smith took it a step further. He told jurors that Amero actually would have had to type the URLs in for them to show up in the browser registry. Both assertions are flat wrong. Internet Explorer, the browser Amero was using at the time, requires neither a mouse click nor a typed URL to show that a link has been visited. Any address loaded by the browser will show up as "visited," even those uploaded in a pop-up window. Many of the porn addresses were hidden behind innocuous-sounding URLs, some disguised as hair styling sites. Amero would had to have been pretty determined in her mission to expose seventh graders to porn to memorize and deliberately key in sites like http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com, one of the offending porn sites.
None of this mattered to cops, prosecutors, or the media. Children had seen adult naughty bits, and someone had to pay. Amero was made a pariah. Local newspaper the Norwich Bulletin ran an editorial lauding Amero’s conviction, declaring that her “intent was apparent” and "her deeds were disgusting."
But just in case Amero's lawyers did make a convincing case she didn't mean to upload the porn sites, Amero’s prosecutors had a fall-back plan: They argued that Amero should have taken measures to block students from seeing the computer once the images started loading.
Once computer experts proved the existence of malware, however, and showed the registry testimony to be flat wrong, the “well, she should have done something” defense was all the state had left, and it's the case they pushed in the media. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly made that argument when he took up the case on his show, insisting that Amero should have turned off the computer. The Norwich Bulletin ran another editorial saying Amero should have "taped some paper over the screen." Prosecutors said at trial that Amero should have thrown a sweater over the screen.
But computer experts say Amero’s panicked reaction—to try and close the ads instead of turning off the computer—isn’t at all uncommon. At least one student testified that Amero did try to prevent him from seeing the images by physically pushing his face away from the screen. She also told a member of the school's staff about the problem. As a substitute teacher, Amero also didn’t have a password to access the computer. The teacher who specifically logged her on told her not to turn off the computer, or she and her students would be locked out for the rest of the day.
Perhaps Amero did show bad judgment in leaving the computer on. But should that be a felony? These prosecutors were ready to ruin Amero’s life by convicting her of a reputation-destroying sex crime—and possibly sending her to prison—because in their judgment, she didn’t properly react to the consequences of the school’s failure to keep its security software up to date. At worst, Amero is guilty of not knowing much about computers. And if that’s a crime, Norwich ought to also lock up its cops, prosecutors, and the editorial board of its local newspaper. Because they’re clearly just as ignorant about technology as Amero.
It wasn’t until earlier this month, four years after the incident, that the state of Connecticut finally dropped the four felony counts against Julie Amero. But it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory. In exchange for dropping the felony charges, Amero still had to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, pay a $100 fine, and forgo her teaching license in Connecticut. It’s hard to blame her for taking the deal, even if she’s innocent. The last four years have taken a toll on her health. Amero has been hospitalized from stress and a heart condition brought on by her case.
Incredibly, some public officials in Connecticut not only refuse to admit any error, they’re still making their case in public. The same day the plea deal was announced, New London County State's Attorney Michael Regan told Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green that he’s still convinced Amero is guilty, and was prepared to go to trial again. "I have no regrets,” he said. “Things took a course that was unplanned... For some reason this case caught the media's attention.”
Amero's case offers more evidence that the criminal justice system hasn't adequately adapted to a generation's worth of technological advances. Our courts are in bad need of some significant reforms, particularly when it comes to expert testimony. It’s one thing to have two competent, qualified experts arguing over evidence that can be interpreted in several ways. It’s something else to allow jurors to consider evidence that’s objectively, provably false. That’s particularly true when it comes from the prosecution's expert witnesses, whom jurors often give more deference to because they’re seen less as hired guns, and more as objective public servants.
Here, a clueless "computer crimes investigator" was permitted to give clearly erroneous testimony in a felony trial. Jurors were instructed to give that expert equal consideration to Amero’s own expert witness, who actually knew what he was talking about. It makes you ponder how many other local police departments have a resident "computer guy" who regularly testifies in criminal trials—and is in way over his head.
The solution is to work peer review, redundancy, and double-checking into the process of admitting forensic evidence at trial. Had three or four actual tech experts had the opportunity to review the conclusions of the Norwich PD's computer “expert,” they would have quickly seen his errors and recognized the symptoms of a malware infestation—just as they did when the case hit the Internet. The crucial difference is that they would have noticed all of this before Amero was charged and convicted, not after.
The very foundation of scientific inquiry is rooted in the peer-review process. It’s really an inexcusable failure that we haven’t yet found a way to utilize peer review to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the scientific evidence admitted in criminal cases—particularly given what's at stake.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason.
What a nightmare this teacher went through. The DA who brought charges needs to be remved from office....
She should not have taken the deal. She should have gone in with a tape recorder, her lawyer, and an expert witness. She should have not only refuted the “crime” but accused the persecutors (not a typo) or neglegence, suborning perjury, and malicious prosecution. When they, huffed, puffed and threw her in jail, that tape should have then been given to the media by a defense lawyer with fortitude. The Prosecutors would have been destroyed.
Most everyone knows that schools, both the lower and college level do not invest in Virus software. Why, I don’t know. When my husband was in college; we would never allow him to use a disc that came from school on our personal computer.
Her mistake was “letting” the malware generate, um, non-diverse popups: otherwise, she could have just called it a lesson in tolerance and gotten Teacher of the Year for her trouble.
edu’s are a soft target. Only slightly ahead of law enforcement and politicians. And all three are way behind the criminals in knowledge of the internet and technology.
I pointed that their "WWW.WILDWOMEN-ENT.COM" domain name could be perilously similar to one leading to something quite unsavory. When I asked my young (female) assistant to "put the Wild Women's website up on the screen, she mistakenly left off the "-ENT" part of their domain name.
The next thing I knew, the screen was flooded with popup windows full of nude photos (and worse) -- and they were popping up faster than my panicked assistant could close them!
When she screamed and broke down in tears, I yanked the power cord out of the projector -- until I could get the proper website up on her monitor.
Needless to say, my point about judicious choice of domain name was made -- too well! BUT, if that had happened in public school, both my assistant and I could have been in big trouble!
FWIW, I do not recommend repeating the experiment; I just checked, and the first thing that happened (before I immediately killed the browser window) was that an applet began to load. I have no desire to know what would have happened (or appeared) if I had allowed that website to finish loading... :-(
No, her mistake was walking into the doors of a school building as a teacher/substitute teacher. I know from personal experience, they will destroy you and your life and your career if they want/need to. Teachers are the bottom rung of the ladder—after principals, parents, even the students. A student can make an accusation against a teacher, it will be believed as truth, the teacher will be put on administrative leave while the district conducts a career-damaging ‘investigation’ all before even hearing your side of the story. Regardless, the student’s story is taken as truth, and any corroborating or contradictory evidence you may present to support your side is considered desperate lying to cover up your guilt. They build a case behind your back, using taxpayer dollars to pay for expensive attorneys, all to support the student’s lie, and your career is over.
Let me tell you, I know. It happened to me. I’m still not over it. It haunts me every day—and what this student accused me of was not in any way sexual. But they tried to take me down anyway. I fought them through legal avenues, and ended up being offered another contract, which I turned down. But, at least I didn’t have to say I’d been non-renewed. Not that I ever want to set foot inside a public school again!
Don’t teach...you are replaceable. They don’t care about you—none of them—the district, the parents or the kids. Eventually one of them will get you. And yes, I’m bitter. I spent four years of my life getting an education degree and ten years teaching and stupid lying kid stole it all away from me. Don’t teach. That’ll be your first mistake.
Having worked in higher education for a number of years, I can tell you for a fact that the college I worked at most certainly kept up-to-date antivirus software, and we never had a virus problem on school-owned machines.
What schools can’t control is what students do to their own machines - and on those, yes, I saw malware.
As someone who works in the forensic community, I’ve followed this story for a long time and have read about it in great detail. The incompetence and arrogance were stunning, and the case was a travesty.
Sorry, just had a different experience.
So, uh, could I get arrested for handing out copies of The Origin of Species to sixteen year olds or is "morals" limited to sex-related acts?
This is a disturbing law. Too vague. Open to abuse.
The computer in question was running Windows 98 and MS IE 5. Not Windows 98SE, the original Windows 98 - already a year out of mainline Microsoft support at that time.
For all intents and purposes that PC was placed in her classroom with a pre-installed rootkit.
...Rational, reasoned inquiry, or debate has been squashed out of the rule of law and the scientific method by partisan and/or individual expediency. I’ll hold my type, don’t want to get terminated from FR again, but y’all can figure out the expletives deleted!!!
Sounds like Norwich PD’s “computer expert” knows less than tens of millions of ordinary business PC users. I most certainly would have avoided the kinds of bone-headed mistakes made by this “expert” and I’m no geek at all.
Is there no honor left in our judicial system?
God help us all :-(
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