A suburban mother was found guilty today of minor misdemeanor charges for her role in an online hoax that prosecutors said led to the suicide of her teenage neighbor.
Lori Drew, 49, was convicted on three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to computers in a case that drew nationwide attention both for its novel use of a computer hacking law to combat alleged cyberbullying and for its tales of suburban neighborhood rivalries and teenage suicide.
The jury could not reach a verdict on a single felony conspiracy charge. Drew, who lives in a suburb of St. Louis, was acquitted of several felony counts of unauthorized access to computers in order to inflict emotional distress on 13-year-old Megan Meier.
Drew faces a possible sentence ranging from probation to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for each misdemeanor count. She could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the felony charges.
Megan Meier committed suicide in October 2006 after the end of her online relationship with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Prosecutors said "Josh Evans" was the fictitious creation of Drew, her daughter and her assistant, who allegedly created the fake MySpace account to spy on Megan.
Legally, as Drew's lawyer Dean Steward repeatedly reminded the jury, the case was not about whether Drew caused Megan to commit suicide. Instead, Drew was accused of violating MySpace's terms of service by obtaining personal information to inflict emotional distress on the teen.
But the emotional pull, and much of the testimony in the trial in federal court in Los Angeles, centered on the suicide. "The tragedy in this case is not just Megan Meier's suicide. It's the fact that it was so preventable," U.S.attorney Thomas O'Brien said in his closing statement.
Megan killed herself after "Josh" told her the world would be better off without her, prosecutors said. The assistant, 20-year-old Ashley Grills, testified under a grant of immunity that she was the one who sent the final message. Drew's daughter Sarah was also not charged.
Sarah told jurors her mother thought inventing "Josh" was a good idea but changed her mind two weeks later and told Grills to shut it down. But Grills testified that Drew orchestrated the hoax and knew Megan was depressed and suicidal. Prosecutors also said Drew later bragged about the prank to her friends and co-workers.
Steward has said that Drew did not encourage or participate in the hoax and was not aware of the mean messages being sent to Megan. He repeatedly asked U.S. District Judge George Wu to exclude testimony about Megan's suicide and twice sought a mistrial.
The case is believed to be one of the first of its kind to use the statute barring unauthorized access to computers, which has previously been used to combat computer hacking, to address so-called cyberbullying. Drew's lawyers and outside legal experts have argued that the unusual prosecution could broaden the scope of what's considered criminal conduct on the Internet. Drew was charged for violating the MySpace terms of service, a set of rules that many users probably do not read.
"How can you violate something when you haven't even read it?" Steward asked, according to the Associated Press. "End of case."
According to prosecutors, for several years the Meiers and the Drews were friendly. Both families had girls the same age who attended school together, and they had gone on family trips together.