Federal prosecutors on Wednesday accused a suburban mother of using MySpace to prey on an insecure teenager who later committed suicide.
Prosecutors say Lori Drew, 49, along with her daughter and an assistant, used the social networking Web site to pretend to be a 16-year-old boy named "Josh," who befriended, flirted with and ultimately rejected Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who lived down the street.
Megan killed herself, prosecutors said, after receiving nasty messages from "Josh."
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.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, struggled to hold back tears on the witness stand Wednesday as she described her final conversations with her daughter.
One day in October 2006, Meier said, when she called home to see how Megan was doing, her daughter was crying because "Josh" and two other girls were saying mean things about her online, Meier said.
When Meier arrived home, Megan showed her a message from "Josh." It said the world would be a better place without her in it, Meier testified.
Megan wrote back, "You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over," according to prosecutor Thomas O'Brien.
Meier said she told her daughter that she wasn't supposed to be online without parental supervision.
"The last words she said to me were 'You are supposed to be my mom, you are supposed to be on my side,'" Meier said, trying to hold back tears.
Meier said she later ran upstairs and found Megan hanging in the closet with a belt around her neck. She died the next day.
Drew's lawyer, Dean Steward, has said that Drew did not encourage or participate in the hoax and was not aware of the mean messages being sent to Meier.
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.
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.
Drew's assistant, 18-year-old Ashley Grills, previously admitted to writing the message that said the world would be better of without Megan. Grills, who has not been charged, is expected to testify against Drew.
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.
Tina Meier told jurors on Wednesday that her daughter was taking medication for attention deficit disorder and depression, and that she struggled with low self-esteem. Concerned about her daughter's safety, Meier said she had Megan's father reverse the lock on her bedroom.
"I was nervous she would do something," said Meier, adding that Megan previously tried committing suicide.
Prosecutors contend that Drew suspected that Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter. They say Drew, her daughter and 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, 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, an online argument escalated until Grills, posing as Josh, told Megan the world would be a better place without her in it, prosecutors say.
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.
Her daughter, whose name is being withheld because of privacy concerns, has also not been charged.
'Not Like I Pulled the Trigger'
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.