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Woman's Spam Conviction Thrown Out

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page E01

A Loudoun County judge yesterday dismissed a North Carolina woman's conviction on felony spamming charges, saying there was insufficient evidence that she flooded tens of thousands of America Online e-mail accounts with unsolicited bulk advertisements. But the judge upheld the conviction of the woman's brother, who had been found guilty of the same crime.

At a hearing requested by defense attorneys, Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne overturned the conviction of Jessica DeGroot, 28, saying he thought the jury, tasked with sorting through complex technological evidence and navigating a new Virginia anti-spam law, might simply have gotten "lost." Horne said he could not find "any rational basis" to find DeGroot guilty.

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DeGroot and her brother, Jeremy Jaynes, 30, were found guilty in November of three felony charges each for using false Internet addresses to send mass e-mail advertisements through an AOL server in Loudoun. Prosecutors said their felony convictions for spamming were the nation's first.

The jury had recommended that Jaynes spend nine years in prison and that DeGroot pay $7,500 in fines for violating the anti-spam law.

When Horne made his ruling, DeGroot embraced her attorney and shook her brother's hand.

"I could not be happier," said Thomas V. Mulrine, DeGroot's attorney, after the hearing. "That was absolutely the right outcome, and it was a long time coming."

During the trial, prosecutors depicted Jaynes as the head of a lucrative spam operation that he ran out of his Raleigh-area home with help from DeGroot and a third defendant, Richard Rutkowski. They said the defendants used phony Internet addresses to send more than 10,000 spam e-mails to AOL subscribers on three days in July 2003. Rutkowski was acquitted.

Prosecutors said that a credit card issued in DeGroot's maiden name, Jessica Jaynes, and checks made out to her by her brother linked her to the scheme. They said the card was used to purchase Internet domain names.

That evidence did not prove her guilt, Mulrine argued at yesterday's hearing. Another Jessica Jaynes could have gotten the credit card, he said, producing a photo of a Mississippi hockey player with the same name that he said he found searching the Internet. And anyone could have used the card, he said.

"The jury did not convict a person, your honor. They convicted a name on checks and a credit card," Mulrine said.

Jaynes's attorney, David A. Oblon, argued yesterday that his client's conviction should be thrown out because, among other reasons, the spamming was not committed in Virginia. He also said there was no proof that e-mails sent were unsolicited.

Oblon said he would argue at a sentencing hearing next month that nine years is far too harsh a sentence for a nonviolent crime. He said he would take the case to the Virginia Court of Appeals.

"I was very disappointed," Oblon said. "I thought we had compelling arguments."

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