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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Tale of Two Juries

Our family Thanksgiving was held at my dad's old place outside Ramona, from a small farmhouse looking over a stream where a grove of towering Sycamore trees took root more than a hundred years ago.

I mentioned to my sisters and their kids that I had just finished covering the MySpace cyberbullying trial of Lori Drew, who OK'd a false account in the image of a good looking young man which contributed to the suicide of a neighboring 13-year-old.

My reference to the trial immediately prompted an intense family discussion, as I had suspected.

One sister said she thought the death penalty was appropriate.

I said that I had initially been swayed by the prosecutor's argument that the defendant's conduct was a violation of the federal statute against computer hacking. He emphasized the defendant's involvement in the creation of a fake account and her apparent callousness.

But it was in talking with the jurors at the courthouse, after they rejected felony counts but convicted on misdemeanors, that my opinion began to shift.

I told the other jury, the one gathered in the kitchen at the farm, that the defendant, a mother, knew about the fake identity created by an 18-year-old employee and the defendant's 13-year-old daughter, but the mother was not the creator of the account nor the principal participant.

As well, her 13-year-old daughter had a long and contentious relationship with the neighboring 13-year-old who died, where they had often argued and insulted each other and then made up.

When I had asked the real jurors at the courthouse about their reaction to the fake MySpace account, one had said, "All the kids are into it." The jurors also accepted a substantial amount of defense evidence showing that a number of factors contributed to the girl's suicide, including three psychiatric medications and family arguments.

I asked my sisters and the kids rhetorically, if an old girlfriend had tried to take her life after we broke up, was I then responsible. Because I could just imagine the jury judiciously considering any representations I might have made concerning my affections and lovingly fitting a noose around my neck.

One sister said it would depend.

But it was the reaction of my niece and nephews, the next generation, that was the most interesting.

One said that she had a friend who looked very much like her and together they had created a single MySpace account combining their names. Thus a fake account.

Another said that if someone does not know that people are manipulating their identities on the Internet, then that person should not be on the Internet.

Old school that I am, I asked about make-up. When a woman puts on make-up, is not she not manipulating her image. Because it seemed to me that humans have constantly attempted to present a different image to others than what nature has ordained. The Internet just gives us much greater power to do that.

The family estimated that thousands and probably millions of people were saying something false on MySpace and other social networking sites, either because they had used a false name, entered a false birth date, were too young, or in some way had fudged information about themselves.

The guilty verdict on misdemeanor counts for unauthorized access of a computer to gain information, I told the family, was based on the prosecution argument that any violation of the MySpace terms of use constitutes "unauthorized access." The terms of use run for seven, single-typed pages and include the creation of a fake account.

All one need do is then send an email from that account "seeking information."

Voila! You have a federal crime.

The effect of the conviction is basically to give social networking sites the power to define violations of federal law through their terms of use, I argued. And that cannot be the purpose behind the law against computer hacking.

My sister allowed that she might have changed her mind on the death penalty being the appropriate punishment.

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