A brother and sister who sent junk e-mail to millions of America Online customers were convicted Wednesday in the nation’s first felony prosecution of Internet spam distributors.
Jurors recommended that Jeremy Jaynes be sentenced to nine years in prison and fined Jessica DeGroot $7,500 after convicting them of three counts each of sending e-mails with fraudulent and untraceable routing information.
A third defendant, Richard Rutkowski, 30, was acquitted of similar charges.
Sentencing was set for February. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Horne will have the option of reducing the jury’s sentence or leaving it intact.
Horne was still considering a motion from defense attorneys to set aside the verdict and will hear arguments on it at a later date. He had said previously that he had reservations about allowing the case against DeGroot and Rutkowski to go to a jury.
Virginia, where AOL is based, prosecuted the case under a law that took effect last year barring people from sending bulk e-mail that is unsolicited and masks its origin.
Prosecutors said Jaynes, 30, and DeGroot, 28, who live in the Raleigh, N.C., area, used the Internet to peddle sham products and services such as a “FedEx refund processor.”
The refund processor supposedly allowed people to earn $75 an hour for working from home. In one month alone, Jaynes received 10,000 credit card orders, each for $39.95, for the processor.
“This is a snake oil salesman in a new format,” said state prosecutor Samuel E. Fishel IV.
Prosecutors had asked the jury to impose a maximum prison sentence of 15 years for Jaynes and to consider some jail time for his sister.
David Oblon, Jaynes’ attorney, expressed shock at the sentence.
“Nine years is absolutely outrageous when you look at what we do to people convicted of crimes like robbery and rape,” he said.
Oblon had argued it was inappropriate for prosecutors to seek what he called excessive punishment because it was the first time the new law had been prosecuted. He also said that because his client was a North Carolina resident he would have been unaware of the Virginia law.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore applauded the convictions and called Virginia’s anti-spam law the toughest in America.
“Spam is a nuisance to millions of Americans, but it is also a major problem for businesses large and small because the thousands of unwanted e-mails create havoc as they attempt to conduct business,” Kilgore said in a statement.