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E-Mail on Trial

The successful prosecution of Richard Machado for committing a hate crime online could become an important precedent in future cases.

The verdict in this winter's California retrial of a former student arrested for sending an e-mail death threat could set the tone for future prosecutions in cyberspace hate incidents.

Federal prosecutors were expected to open the second trial of Richard Machado, whose first case ended in a December mistrial, on Jan. 27. Machado is the first American charged with committing a hate crime over the Internet.

"Even if he's not found guilty, it's important to know how a jury in Orange County will deal with this," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Gennaco. "These kinds of cases are being reported more and more, and this could be precedent-setting in terms of how Internet hate cases are handled."

Machado, a 20-year-old former student at University of California-Irvine, sent out his 1996 e-mail threat to 59 mostly Asian students from a computer in the school's library.

It said, in part: "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?"

During the first trial, Machado claimed he had been distraught over the murder of his brother. The jury voted 9-3 in favor of acquittal. Some jurors said later that Machado seemed to be no more than a disturbed, unhappy youth.

Gennaco says cyberhate incidents are on the rise. "We have three or four cases under investigation in the Los Angeles area, whereas before we had none. The publicity over the Machado case has made authorities more aware they should look at this, and increased usage of the Internet means it's happening more."