Wednesday, November 3, 2004

A Loudoun County jury convicted two North Carolina residents of violating Virginia’s anti-spam law yesterday, a decision that likely will become a landmark in the nation’s growing crusade against unwanted e-mail.

Defendants Jeremy D. Jaynes and his sister, Jessica DeGroot, were convicted on three felony charges of using phony Internet addresses to send unsolicited e-mail to tens of thousands of subscribers to America Online, which is based in Ashburn, in Loudoun County.

A third defendant, Richard Rutowski, was acquitted.

It was the nation’s first spam felony trial. Virginia’s anti-spam law — the nation’s toughest, according to legal scholars — was enacted in April 2003 and is the first to make sending spam a felony.

The jury deliberated for a day and a half. After returning their verdict, the jurors began considering punishments for Jaynes, 30, and DeGroot, 28, who each face as many as 15 years in prison and as much as $7,500 in fines.

“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 commerce,” said Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore a Republican.

The trial opened Oct. 25. During the proceedings, prosecutors called the defendants modern-day snake-oil salesmen who used the Internet to hawk dubious mortgages, investments and other schemes, including a “FedEx refund processor” that supposedly allowed people to earn $75 an hour while working from home.

In one month alone, Jaynes received 10,000 credit-card orders for the processor, each for $39.95.

The indictments — announced at AOL’s headquarters last year — said more than 10,000 spam messages a day were sent on three dates in July 2003 through servers in Virginia.

Mr. Kilgore, who is expected to seek his party’s nomination for governor next year, prosecuted the case under a law that took effect in April 2003.

The law bars people from masking their identities to send unsolicited bulk e-mail. It reserves its harshest penalties for spammers who send at least 10,000 copies of a message in a single day or makes at least $1,000 on one such transmission.

Legal experts have predicted the prosecution will lead to more indictments against spammers in Virginia, which handles more than half of the world’s Internet traffic.

AOL spokesman Nicholas Graham said laws with tough penalties “are an important deterrent to those who send spam by falsified means. This conviction should be heard loud and clear as a strong message to those who violate Virginia’s tough computer-crime statutes by sending spam.”

Jaynes was rated one of the world’s top 10 spammers on the Register of Known Spam Operators, a database administered by the Spamhaus Project, an international watchdog group in London.

A spokesman for the group could not be reached yesterday.

Jaynes, who has used the aliases “Jeremy James” and “Gaven Stubberfield,” surrendered to authorities in Raleigh, N.C., in December. DeGroot, who used her credit card to purchase domain names to send spam, surrendered in April.

Prosecutors asked the jury to impose a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for Jaynes and to consider an unspecified prison term for DeGroot.

Defense lawyers asked jurors to spare the defendants prison terms.

David Oblon, Jaynes’ attorney, argued that it was inappropriate for prosecutors to seek what he called an excessive punishment, given that this is the first prosecution under the Virginia law. He also noted that his client, a Raleigh, N.C., resident, would have been unaware of the Virginia law.

The case against Mr. Rutkowski — whom prosecutors said registered a mailbox used in Jaynes’ scheme — was the weakest, said his attorney, Leo Andrews Jr.

“I would think the commonwealth would agree about that as well,” Mr. Andrews told the Associated Press.

Loudoun County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Orne has not ruled on an earlier motion asking that the case against the three be dismissed. He said during the trial that he had a hard time allowing the prosecution of DeGroot and Mr. Rutkowski to go forward to the jury.

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