A federal judge Thursday tentatively threw out computer fraud convictions against Lori Drew, the Missouri mom accused of taking part in a MySpace hoax blamed for the suicide of a 13-year-old neighbor girl.
Drew was convicted in November 2008 of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to computers for violating MySpace's terms of service. U.S. District Judge George Wu said the dismissal of the convictions would be final when he issues the ruling in writing.
Drew had faced up to three years in prison and a $300,000 fine for what prosecutors described as a "scheme to humiliate" 13-year-old Megan Meier, Drew's former neighbor in a St. Louis suburb, by helping to create a MySpace profile for a fictitious teenage boy named "Josh Evans."
Drew, with her own teenage daughter and a business assistant, Ashley Grills, used the fake profile to flirt with, befriend and then abandon Meier, leading Meier to hang herself, prosecutors contend. Drew has denied more than passing knowledge of the fake account, and Grills and Drew's daughter were never charged.
The judge said that if Drew is to be found guilty of illegally accessing computers, anyone who has ever violated the social networking site's terms of service would be guilty of a misdemeanor, the Associated Press reported.
Legal observers were closely watching the case, thought to have far-reaching implications for the prosecution of so-called "cyberbullying."
Federal prosecutors charged Drew under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which bans unauthorized access to computers and has previously been used to combat computer hacking. 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.
Though Meier's suicide was the impetus for the case, Drew was never directly charged with the girl's death.
Drew had been acquitted of more serious felony charges of intentionally causing emotional harm while accessing computers without authorization. She was charged in Los Angeles because MySpace's computer servers are based there.
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Prosecutors had asked for the maximum three-year prison sentence, saying Megan's suicide was the "direct result" of Drew's "vindictive assault." Probation department officials recommended a sentence of a year of probation and a $5,000 fine.
Because the criminal case involved accessing MySpace's computer servers, Drew's lawyers argued that Megan's parents, Ron and Tina Meier, should not be able to speak at the sentencing. Federal law gives crime victims the right to speak at sentencing.
"Under the law, they're just not victims. If anybody is, it's MySpace. It's that simple," said Drew's attorney, Dean Steward.
"The entire point of the prosecution has been to make Lori drew a symbol of cyberbullying," her lawyers argued in court papers in May. "The government has created a fiction that Lori Drew somehow caused [Meier's] death, and it wants a long prison sentence to make its fiction seem real."
Tina Meier earlier declined to comment about the sentencing, saying prosecutors asked her not to speak until after the hearing. In an interview last year after Drew was indicted, Meier said Drew deserved the maximum allowable sentence. "She played a ridiculous game with my daughter's life," she said at the time.
Prosecutors contend that Drew suspected that Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter. Grills testified that Drew thought the MySpace account was a funny idea and was present about half of the time when Grills and Sarah Drew sent messages to Megan.
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.
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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" that 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's lawyers have said Drew was aware of the fake profile, but did not know about the cruel messages, and did not know of the final message telling Meier that the world would be a better place without her.
Police and prosecutors in the St. Louis area concluded that no laws had been broken. But when Ron and Tina Meier told a local newspaper what happened, the story took on a life of its own.
The suicide generated headlines around the world. Drew's lawyers say she and her family were forced to leave the neighborhood after received threats and harassing phone calls.