A suburban Missouri mother accused of organizing a cruel online hoax that led to the suicide of her 13-year-old neighbor knew the teen was depressed and suicidal, her former assistant testified Thursday.
The girl, Megan Meier, killed herself after she was told the world would be better off without her, prosecutors say.
Ashley Grills, 20, told jurors Thursday she helped Lori Drew set up a fake MySpace profile of a 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans" to lure Meier into an online relationship, The Associated Press reported.
When she learned of Megan's death, Grills said Drew told her, "`We could have pushed her overboard because she was suicidal and depressed.'"
Testimony was to resume Friday in the case against Drew. 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.
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. According to the AP, Steward has repeatedly asked U.S. District Judge George Wu to exclude testimony about Megan's suicide and twice sought a mistrial.
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.
Testifying for the prosecution under a grant of immunity, Grills also said she sent the last message from the fictitious "Josh Evans" to Megan in October 2006 on the day the girl hanged herself.
Grills, who helped Drew with her coupon magazine business, testified that she told Drew they might get in trouble for the scheme, but that Drew replied, "It was fine and people do it all the time."
Grills said Drew thought the MySpace account was a funny idea and was present about half of the time when Grills and Sarah sent messages to Megan.
Grills said she remembered at least one time when Drew sat down and typed messages on the computer. She also testified that Drew wanted to print the conversations between "Josh" and Megan, lure the teen to a mall and reveal who the fake boy really was.
To finally end the hoax, Grills said she devised a scenario in which "Josh" would move away so Megan would lose interest in him. When Megan persisted, the tactics changed.
"We decided to be mean to her so she would leave him alone," Grills said, according to the AP.
Grills testified that she sent the final message to Megan that said the world would be better off without her.
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.