A US District Court judge on Friday set aside the guilty verdict in the case of a former network administrator who had been convicted in May on a federal charge of computer sabotage.
A jury found Tim Lloyd, 37, of Wilmington, Deleware, guilty of planting a software time bomb in a centralised file server at Omega Engineering's Bridgeport, New Jersey, manufacturing plant. The malicious software code destroyed the programs that ran the company's manufacturing machines, costing Omega more than $US10 million in losses and eventually leading to 80 layoffs.
The Hon William H Walls, who presided over the four-week trial, set aside the decision based on the fact that one of the jurors who heard the case approached the court with concerns after the guilty verdict had been handed in.
The juror told the judge she was unsure whether a piece of information that she had heard on the television news had been factored into her verdict, according to Assistant US Attorney V Grady O'Malley, who prosecuted the case. "Although she couldn't articulate what impact it had, she simply made the statement that she was unsure about whether it was important to bring to the court's attention," O'Malley said.
O'Malley, who said he was "mystified" by Walls' decision, said he will appeal the decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. And he added that if the appeal fails, he will retry the case.
"(The juror's statement) had nothing to do with the evidence in the case," said O'Malley. "It had nothing to do with how the government presented its case. This had to do with an extraneous piece of information that one juror seemed to focus on after the verdict came in. You can't go behind the deliberation process. If that were the case, no verdict would be safe."
The Lloyd case was the first federal criminal prosecution of computer sabotage. Industry observers hailed the conviction as a precedent-setting victory, proving that the government is capable of tracking down and prosecuting computer crime. The prosecution's case called on a four-year investigation by the US Secret Service and expert testimony by a renowned data recovery professional.
Lloyd, who did not testify in court, has maintained his innocence. "There's no way in the world I did this," he said in an interview after the verdict was handed down in May.
The case stems from a July 31, 1996 incident at Omega, a Stamford, Connecticut, manufacturer of customised high-tech measurement and instrumentation devices. On that morning, a worker at Omega South, the manufacturing plant, booted up the central file server that housed more than a thousand programs and the specs for moulds and templates. Immediately after boot-up, the server crashed, erasing and purging all the programs on it. After months of data recovery efforts, the programs are considered a complete loss.
Executives from Omega testified that that company still hasn't been able to fully get back on its feet again, citing the loss of several major contracts after the incident rendered the company unable to offer quick product turn out and customisation. "We will never recover," said Jim Ferguson, plant manager at Omega South.
Lloyd, who had worked for Omega for 11 years, had long been a trusted employee. He even created the network that the prosecution said he later destroyed. The government contended that Lloyd destroyed the programs after he fell from corporate grace and was ultimately fired.
If the guilty verdict is reengaged, Lloyd will face up to five years in federal prison.