The Prosecution of Julie Amero
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.