Merry Christmas, Ms. Amero

Gibbs recounts the case of Julie Amero, the Connecticut teacher who was unjustly accused of child endangerment for porno popups on a classroom computer.

Christmas changes life into a delirious, happy, hopeful haze of eating, drinking, seeing friends and celebrating as the year comes to a close. For Julie Amero of Connecticut I suspect 2008 can’t close fast enough.

Back in March last year I wrote about the plight of Ms. Amero, a substitute teacher in Norwich, Conn. To recap, Ms. Amero was a seventh grade language class teacher. Little did she know that when she went to work on Oct. 19, 2004, her life was about to become very complicated.

On that day, while in class teaching, Ms. Amero was also Web surfing and checking her e-mail using a school-supplied computer. Suddenly popups started to appear, popups of a pornographic nature. It was bad enough that these popups appeared at all but what was worse was that they wouldn’t stop.

Ms. Amero was at a severe disadvantage in this situation. She had been specifically told not to turn the machine off and, not knowing much about computers, simply didn’t know what to do. Add to that the facts the school had no firewall, no Internet filtering and the PC had no malware protection of its own worth talking about, and Ms. Amero was at a major disadvantage in dealing with the problem.

Eventually Ms. Amero managed to block the children from looking at the screen (apparently some six children actually made efforts to look at the images and Ms. Amero had to physically push one child away from the computer).

It was a little later that the real nightmare began: Ms. Amero was charged with child endangerment, a charge that could have potentially sent her to prison for 40 years. Was the school or the school district’s staff held in any way accountable? No. The only person the authorities charged was Ms. Amero.

In January 2007 Ms. Amero was convicted on four counts, the actual charge being the rather vague "risk of injury to a minor, or impairing the morals of a child." The case went to appeal and a judge concluded that the state had provided erroneous testimony and set aside the verdict ordering a retrial.

Erroneous testimony was just part of the entire, trumped-up case against Ms. Amero. The prosecution’s “evidence” was laughable, their witnesses inexpert and incompetent, and their intent transparent: To make an “example” of Julie Amero. Shameless and shameful doesn’t begin to describe the behavior of the authorities and the court.

The conclusion to this farce was played out in court earlier this festive month when the State of Connecticut dropped the four felony counts in exchange for Ms. Amero pleading guilty to a misdemeanor, paying a $100 fine, and surrendering her Connecticut teaching credentials.

The four years of this state-sponsored bullying of an innocent individual has cost Ms. Amero and her husband upwards of $50,000 in legal fees, cost her her job, given her a criminal record, and sent her to hospital with stress and a heart condition that are attributable to the case.

A lot of people did stand up for Ms. Amero. These included people in the computer security business who published widely on the forensic mistakes and technical inaccuracies involved, but that made no difference. Even so, the state attorney, Michael Regan, has publicly stated that he is still convinced Amero is guilty and that he is prepared to go to trial again! Words fail me.

So, what have we learned? First, when computers and porn are involved a weird puritanical morality comes into play. Second, when computers are combined with a willfully ignorant court then common sense and any notion of justice are easily dispensed with. Third, if you teach in Connecticut, avoid computers. Fourth, if you teach and do go near computers, then no matter what people tell you, when in doubt pull the plug.

So, Merry Christmas, Ms. Amero. I think I can speak for many of us in the IT industry when I say we’re sorry, we wish computers were easier to deal with. May 2009 be a whole lot better for you and may it be computer and litigation free.

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