Opening statements could begin as early as this afternoon in a potentially landmark trial of a suburban mother accused of organizing an online hoax that ended in the suicide of her teenage neighbor.
Prosecutors say Lori Drew, 49, along with her daughter and assistant, used the social networking Web site MySpace to trick and torment Megan Meier, an insecure 13-year-old girl who lived down the street in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
Drew and others allegedly pretended to be a 16-year-old boy named Josh, who during several weeks, befriended, flirted with and ultimately rejected Megan.
After the story first appeared in a local paper, the case generated headlines around the world and led to threats against Drew and her family. But the trial, in federal court in Los Angeles, will focus not on whether Drew caused Megan to commit suicide, but on a seemingly more mundane issue: whether Drew violated MySpace's terms of service in order to inflict emotional distress on Megan.
Drew has been charged with conspiracy and three counts of unauthorized access to protected computers; each charge carries a maximum five-year prison term. She has pleaded not guilty and, if convicted, will likely face a lower sentence under federal guidelines.
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, if successful, could broaden the scope of what's considered criminal conduct on the Internet.
"It seems this is advancing arguments that are a dangerous expansion of the law," said Paul Ohm, a former attorney with the Department of Justice's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section who now teaches at the University of Colorado. "When you think of computer hacking, you think of picking virtual locks. But when we're talking about violating the terms of service, we're no longer talking about breaking a lock, just about breaking a rule that you probably didn't know existed."
A conviction "will really strengthen the Department of Justice's hand to go after all sorts of conduct they don't go after today. It could open doors to all sorts of prosecutions that we wouldn't imagine today," said Ohm, who signed a friend of the court brief asking for the case to be dismissed.
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 had gone on family trips together.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, reportedly told Drew that Megan was suffering from depression, that she was "vulnerable" and that she worried her daughter might try to hurt herself.
But the relationship between the girls was "at times, rocky," prosecutors say. The pair drifted apart and, in 2006, Drew suspected that Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter. Prosecutors say Drew, her daughter and her 18-year-old assistant, Ashley Grills, set up a fake MySpace account in the name of Josh Evans, an attractive 16-year-old boy who was new in town, to spy on Megan.
They allegedly used the Josh Evans account to contact and befriend Megan. Within a few days, prosecutors allege, Drew encouraged her daughter and Grills to flirt with Megan and planned to lure the teenager to the mall to confront her with the hoax and taunt her, prosecutors say.
In October 2006, another neighborhood girl obtained the password to the Josh account and sent Megan a message saying that Josh no longer wanted to be her friend. The next day, the argument escalated until Grills, posing as Josh, told Megan the world would be a better place without her in it.
About 20 minutes later, Tina Meier found her daughter hanging from her belt in her bedroom closet. She died at the hospital the next day.
Grills said during an interview with "Good Morning America" she wrote that final message in an effort to end the online relationship with Josh because she felt the joke had gone too far.
Drew has previously denied involvement in the hoax, saying she didn't know about the mean messages being sent to Megan, and her attorney Dean Steward told The Associated Press that part of Drew's defense would be that she was not at home when the final message was sent.
Her daughter, whose name is being withheld because of privacy concerns, and Grills have not been charged
Prosecutors claim that after Drew learned what had happened, she told her daughter and Grills to delete the MySpace account and told the girl who said that Josh no longer wanted to be Megan's friend to "keep her mouth shut." At one point, after admitting she had told others to take down the MySpace page, Drew allegedly said, "It's not like I pulled the trigger," prosecutors say.
When Megan's parents learned of Drew's alleged involvement, they contacted the police and the FBI. Local and federal prosecutors in Missouri investigated but never charged Drew, concluding that no crime had been committed, according to court records. Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, where MySpace's computer servers are located, took the case to a grand jury, which indicted Drew in May.
Jury selection began Tuesday. Judge George Wu ruled last week that prosecutors could present evidence of Megan's suicide, though he reportedly said that he would tell the jury to focus on whether Drew violated the MySpace terms of service. The terms of service bar fraud, harassment or using information from MySpace to "harass, abuse or harm another person."
Some observers say that allowing prosecutors to present the evidence of Megan's suicide raises the possibility that the case, at least in the minds of jurors, will become more about the human drama of a teenage girl's death than about the legal issues involved.
"Once the suicide horse is out of the barn it's hard to tell jurors to ignore that," said Joseph DeMarco, a former federal prosecutor. "In a case like this, where the underlying acts seem to be innocent in and of themselves, the inflammatory word 'suicide' might have disproportionate impact."
Though the prosecution has been criticized, prosecutors say the case will not mean that anyone who violates a Web site's terms of service will face criminal charges because prosecutors must still prove that a person acted with criminal intent.