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.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, told jurors 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 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.
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" 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, 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," 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.
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 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.