NEW LONDON, Conn. — A substitute teacher was granted a new trial Wednesday after her conviction for failing to prevent students from viewing pornography on her computer raised thorny questions about who is ultimately responsible for screening unsavory online material.
The woman, Julie Amero, 40, of Windham, Conn., adamantly denied clicking on pornographic Web sites that appeared on her classroom’s computer screen in October 2004 while she was teaching seventh-graders at Kelly Middle School in Norwich.
Amero was convicted in January on four counts of risk of injury to a minor, but computer security experts and bloggers across the political spectrum rallied to Amero’s defense when evidence later emerged that her computer had been infected with spyware that caused pop-up ads to take over the screen.
Superior Court Judge Hillary Strackbein granted Amero’s motion for a retrial Wednesday after determining that a Norwich police detective who was called as an expert prosecution witness had given “erroneous” testimony about the computer.
A date for her new trial has not been set, but prosecutors did not oppose the ruling, meaning Amero is unlikely to face any further prosecution, NBC affiliate WVIT-TV of Hartford reported.
Assistant State’s Attorney David Smith acknowledged Wednesday that erroneous information about the computer was presented during trial. He said the errors came to light when prosecutors sent the computer to a state laboratory for examination after the trial.
Amero, who was pregnant at the time of the incident, could have been sentenced to 40 years in prison, but her sentencing was postponed four times as the new evidence was examined.
“Frankly, we commend the state for investigating further to determine that their original computer witness was erroneous in his conclusions about the pop-ups,” Amero’s attorney, William Dow, told NBC affiliate WNBC-TV of New York. “The lesson from this is all of us are subject to the whims of these computers.”
Teacher becomes a technology cause
The sentence for what all sides eventually agreed was at best an inadvertent error made Amero’s case a call to battle for some technology experts, who said that what happened to her could happen to anyone.
Amero said the computer lacked firewall or anti-spyware protections to prevent inappropriate pop-ups, a contention supported by the school’s principal, who said a vendor’s bill had gone unpaid.
“I did everything I possibly could to keep them from seeing anything,” Amero said during her trial.
Several experts showed up Wednesday at New London Superior Court to support Amero, including consultant Herb Horner, a defense witness whose company examined a copy of the computer’s hard drive.
“During the copy process we received several ‘Security Alerts!’ from our antivirus program. We analyzed the activity log and noted that there were spyware/adware programs installed on the hard drive,” Horner wrote in a report. “We ran two other adware/spyware detection programs and more spyware/adware tracking cookie/programs were discovered.”
But most of Horner’s evidence was barred at trial after the prosecution objected. Horner said Wednesday that Amero would not have been convicted if he had been allowed to present all of his evidence.
“It was the most frustrating thing of my life,” Horner told WNBC. “I went home and while I was eating dinner, I broke down because I was so emotional and upset.”
The Federal Trade Commission has been cracking down on companies accused of spreading malicious spyware to millions of computer users worldwide. Pop-up blockers that can prevent so-called porn storms are now in wide use.
By Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com with Craig Brokaw of NBC News, WVIT-TV of Hartford, Conn., and WNBC-TV of New York.