Nov. 26, 2008 -- 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.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, told jurors 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 had previously tried to commit suicide.
Prosecutors contend that Drew suspected that Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter. They said 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, 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 said.
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.
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 said.
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 had previously denied involvement in the hoax, saying she didn't know about the mean messages being sent to Megan.
Her daughter has not been charged.
'Not Like I Pulled the Trigger'
Prosecutors claimed 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," said prosecutors.
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.
Judge George Wu ruled before the trial that prosecutors could present evidence of Megan's suicide. The terms of service bar fraud, harassment or using information from MySpace to "harass, abuse or harm another person."
Some observers said 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 said the case would not mean that anyone who violated a Web site's terms of service would face criminal charges because prosecutors must still prove that a person acted with criminal intent.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.