In the first conviction of an online hate crime, a 21-year-old Los Angeles man has been found guilty in federal court of sending racist death threats by email to 59 Asian students.
As reported yesterday, the jury in the trial of Richard Machado, a former University of California at Irvine student, deliberated for a day before returning a verdict confirming that sending threats via the Net is the same as doing it over a phone or through the regular mail.
This was the second trial held in this case, as the first ended in mistrial after the jury deadlocked. The first time, Machado was charged with ten counts of civil rights law violations. For his second trial, however, he was only charged with two counts: sending the threat based on the recipients' race or ethnicity and "interfering" with their right to attend the university.
While the case sets a precedent because it puts Internet communications on equal legal ground with telephone calls and postal mail, it also is significant in that it addresses civil rights violations such as hate crimes committed online.
Machado has been detained since February of last year and now could be sentenced to up to a year in federal prison and be fined $100,000. He will appear in court Friday for sentencing.
In 1996, Machado reportedly sent an email to a group of UC Irvine students, most of whom were Asian, stating "I personally will make it my life career to find and kill every one of you personally." The email, sent from a campus computer, allegedly was signed "Asian Hater."
Machado's defense team argued that the email was a "stupid prank" and that so-called flames or abusive messages are commonplace within Internet culture and discussions. But the jury took the threat seriously.
"It will set a significant precedent and have a deterrent effect--we hope--for people who in the future think about using the Internet or email to threaten people's lives," Michael Gennaco, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said yesterday.
"The jury has spoken that a line needs to be drawn in cyberspace," he added. "If you cross that line, you'll be subjected to the same criminal penalties you would be as if you use a telephone or post mail to do these kinds of acts."
Machado's lawyer, deputy U.S. public defender Sylvia Torres-Guillen, said she would not comment on the case or any plans for appeals until after Friday's sentencing.
Federal judges have rigid guidelines to follow for sentencing, but Machado's time served could count toward his sentence, according to a criminal defense expert. "The lawyers at the time of sentencing will try to explain or mitigate his conduct," said Garrick Lew, an attorney with the law firm Minami, Lew, & Tamaki of San Francisco.
Lew added that the verdict signals a "maturing" of the Internet. "People who are saying that there is a greater freedom of speech on the Internet and greater liberty to send a derogatory threat through email should know that doesn't fly. The medium shouldn't be treated differently."
Net law specialists agree. "The traditional legal principles that apply to any communication medium are going to apply to the Internet," Gabriel Jack Chan, a professor at Western New England College School of Law, said today.
"One of the things many people like about the Net is the anonymity factor," he noted. "But just because the Net has been this sort of fantasy land, isn't going to get you off the hook when it comes to [criminal activity]."
CNET Radio reporter Rose Aguilar contributed to this report.