by Davan Maharaj
February 11, 1998
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SANTA ANA — In the nation's first successful prosecution of a hate crime on the Internet, an expelled university student was found guilty Tuesday of violating the civil rights of Asian students at UC Irvine by sending e-mail threats to kill them if they didn't leave the school.
Prosecutors hailed the verdict in the retrial of 20-year-old Richard J. Machado as a victory for federal authorities seeking to police the Internet to deter hatemongers and racist groups.
"This verdict shows that high-tech hate is not going to be tolerated," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael J. Gennaco, who prosecuted the case. "A line does have to be drawn in the world of cyberspace. If you cross that line and threaten people, you are going to be subject to criminal penalties."
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for less than a day before finding Machado guilty of interfering with students' rights to attend a public university. Jurors deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of conviction on a second, identical count.
Machado displayed no emotion when the verdict was read Tuesday afternoon. His first trial ended in a mistrial in November with jurors deadlocked 9 to 3 in favor of acquittal.
Because his conviction carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and he has already served more time than that in custody, Machado could be set free as early as Friday, when he appears for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler.
Gennaco, who heads the civil rights division of the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, downplayed Machado's sentence.
"What we've taken from this case is a deterrent value that people can't get on the Internet and send threats to folks," Gennaco said.
Gennaco hinted that prosecutors would now be more likely to step in and prosecute computer users who stalk or threaten others in cyberspace.
"We have a number of ongoing investigations regarding allegations of threats on the Internet," Gennaco said. "Now we have some guidance from 12 people that the government can step in and enforce laws on the Internet."
Machado's trial--and retrial--had been seen as a test case.
To prosecute Machado, prosecutors turned to civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s that were designed to prevent Southerners from standing in the way of school desegregation.
Machado violated students' civil rights, prosecutors contended, when he hunched over a computer in UCI's engineering building on Sept. 20, 1996, and sent an anonymous e-mail message to about 60 mainly Asian students.
The message, signed "Asian Hater," warned that all Asians should leave UC Irvine or the sender would "hunt all of you down and kill your stupid asses."
"I personally will make it my [life's work] to find and kill every one of you personally. OK? That's how determined I am. Do you hear me?"
Apparently thinking the first one didn't get transmitted, Machado sent the same message twice, and school officials quickly traced the messages to him after they received complaints.
The e-mail incensed and upset some students, especially those of Asian descent, who constitute nearly half of UC Irvine's 17,000 students, the highest percentage of any UC school.
Several students testified that they were petrified by the e-mail. They armed themselves with pepper spray, refused to go out alone at night and became suspicious of strangers.
The defense called other students who testified that they became angry over the message but later shrugged it off as a bad joke.
During the trial, defense lawyers depicted Machado as a disturbed teenager who became distraught and flunked out of UCI after his eldest brother was murdered in Los Angeles.
When he sent the threatening e-mail, Machado was no longer a UCI student, but he was too ashamed to tell his immigrant parents, according to Deputy Federal Public Defender Sylvia Torres-Guillen.
Machado testified at both trials that one of his brothers would drive him to UCI each day even after he had been expelled. There, he passed his days in the computer laboratory, sending and receiving e-mail and surfing the Internet until it was time to go home.
On the day he sent the e-mail, Machado testified, he was bored and wanted to start a "dialogue" with people who were signed on to the school's computer network.
Some attorneys, including Machado's defense team, questioned whether charges should have been filed against the former student.
Torres-Guillen even called an expert witness in Internet etiquette, who described Machado's e-mail as "a classic flame" -- online lingo for an angry message that, while annoying, is not meant to be harmful.
But Gennaco contended that Machado hated Asians because they got better grades than he did.
In his rebuttal case, the prosecutor called a University of South Carolina freshman and another computer user in Denver who testified that Machado referred to Asians as "chinks" when he chatted with them in cyberspace.
The witnesses contradicted Machado's testimony that he never used derogatory terms for Asians.
Gennaco said prosecutors may suggest that Machado attend a racial awareness program as part of his sentence.