Lawyer: Melissa Suspect Innocent

The man charged with creating the e-mail virus called "Melissa" never intended to do anything wrong, his lawyer said Saturday. The virus infected thousands of computers and overloaded communications systems worldwide.

David L. Smith, a computer programmer from Aberdeen, N.J., was arrested Thursday night at his brother's house in nearby Eatontown. He will plead innocent, said lawyer Steven Altman.

Smith faces charges that include interruption of public communications, conspiracy, and theft of computer service charges that carry a maximum penalty of forty years in prison and a $480,000 fine.

Altman said his client had been wrongly portrayed as a dangerous computer hacker and been victimized by the government's crackdown on high-tech crimes.

"The computer world is a world where people do things, experimental things, just about every day," Altman said. "Nothing he did or intended to do had a premeditated or wrongful intent."

Smith was released on $100,000 bail.

"He's very upset, scared and nervous. This has been a horrible ordeal. They went in there as gangbusters -- local authorities, state police, the FBI. Ted Bundy, that's what they treated him like," Altman said, referring to the serial killer executed in Florida 10 years ago.

Smith, 30, named the virus after a topless dancer from Florida, where he used to live, the New Jersey attorney general's office said.

The virus originated from Smith's apartment in Aberdeen. Smith was snared with the help of America Online technicians and a computer task force composed of federal and state agents, Malley said.

Earlier this week, experts had said there were clues that the virus writer had distributed "Melissa" using an account stolen from America Online 15 months ago.

"Melissa" surfaced a week ago and swamped thousands of email systems around the country, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone.

It arrives as email that says "Important Message From..." and then the name of a friend or organization you know.

Once inside someone's computer, the virus gets into the email address book and then automatically mails itself to 50 or more people, so it appears to be an email message sent by a friend.

"What's unusual about it is that it can spread itself over the Internet via email without the user even knowing," said Stephen Tirlling, of Symantec, a company that makes antivirus software.

The virus does not destroy computers, but it ties up entire computer networks as it busily mails out new copies of itself.

The best protection against "Melissa:" If you see "Important Message From..." in your email, don't open it, no matter who sent it to you.

A similar virus, called the "Papa" virus, also surfaced last week.
That virus sends out even more infected emails than "Melissa," although it has a bug that sometimes prevents it from working, according to Srivats Sampath, of McAfee software, another company thamakes antivirus software.

Several computer experts recently said they had found clues linking the virus to a writer using the computer handle, "VicodinES," which is also the name of a narcotic painkiller. Malley said Smith was "definitely not" the person who used that handle.

©1999 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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