Smith pleads guilty to Melissa virus

Melissa infected hundreds of thousands of computers -- now its creator faces 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine.

David L. Smith, who was arrested for creating and releasing the Melissa virus in April, plead guilty on Thursday to a second-degree charge of computer theft.

The Melissa macro computer virus hit companies on March 26 after being released to a Usenet newsgroup as part of a list of porn sites contained in a Word document infected with the virus.

The virus, which mailed itself out to the first 50 addresses listed in the address book of Microsoft's Outlook e-mail client, caused a massive spike in e-mail traffic, flooding corporate e-mail servers. Companies such as Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Intel Corp. (Nasdaq:INTC), Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT), and Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE:LU) shut down their gateways to the Internet in the face of the threat.

After Judge John Riccardi outlined the events, a nervous Smith read the following statement:

"Yes, I admit those events occurred as a result of the spread of the Melissa virus. But I did not expect or anticipate the amount of damage that took place. When I posted the virus, I expected that any financial injury would be minor and incidental. In fact, I included features designed to prevent substantial damage. I had no idea there would be such profound consequences to others."

'I certainly agree'
When the judge again asked if Smith agreed that it caused significant damage to computer systems nationwide, Smith replied, "I certainly agree. It did result in those consequences, without question."

The crime -- which covers intercepting computer communications and damages to computer systems or data -- is punishable by 5 to 10 years in jail and up to a $150,000 fine. As part of the plea agreement, Smith has agreed to the maximum penalty for the crime, but the presiding judge could ignore the recommendation.

Smith appeared in Monmouth County, N.J., Superior Court at 10 a.m. ET. He has another appearance scheduled in the U.S. District Court in Newark later today to answer to federal charges in the case.

According to law enforcement sources close to the case, Smith will enter a guilty plea in federal court as well. Edward Borden, Smith's attorney in the case, could not be reached for comment.

Court papers filed in August stated that Smith confessed to writing the virus. Smith had admitted his guilt at the time of the arrest, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General's office, in a ZDTV interview.

"There was a statement made at the time of the arrest from Mr. Smith to our investigator... that, in fact, at the time of the arrest, he had admitted to creating the virus and had said that he had destroyed the personal computers that he had used to post it on the Internet," Loriquet said in the report.