A Missouri woman accused in a MySpace hoax that ended in a girl’s suicide was convicted Wednesday of three misdemeanor charges by an L.A. jury that rejected more serious felonies.
Lori Drew, 49, faces up to three years in prison after the federal jury declined to convict her on three felony charges and couldn’t decide on a fourth. The felony counts had carried a maximum 20-year term.
Lori Drew, 49, allegedly posed as a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans on MySpace and participated in what the prosecutor called “an elaborate scheme to inflict massive humiliation” on the emotionally fragile Meier that ended when the girl hanged herself.
Drew showed little emotion as the panel, after one day of deliberation, found her guilty of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized computer access, sometimes referred to as hacking. The jury said it was hopelessly deadlocked on a felony conspiracy charge.
In what was being called the nation’s first cyber-bulling trial, Drew, of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., was accused of hatching the MySpace romance plan in 2006 because of a feud between Drew’s daughter and Meier. The fictional Josh concluded the online flirting by sending a message saying the world would be better off without Meier.
Meier, who had a history of depression, then hung herself in a closet with a belt. She died the next day.
Attorneys, Juror Speak Out
Drew declined comment, but her attorney, H. Dean Steward says he will seek probation and no prison time.
Steward says that his client has already endured more than a year of harassment, and that she has been demonized, and wrongly characterized as being callous to Megan’s suicide.
“She feels deep sadness over Megan taking her own life,” Steward told reporters.
U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien, lead prosecutor on the case, says the convictions sent a message that “if you’re going to attempt to annoy or harass a little girl [over the computer], this office will do everything it can to hold you responsible.”
He adds that if parents aren’t watching what their children are doing online, “you’d better start.”
Juror Shirley Hanley, 59, says that on the computer charges, the jury was initially divided as to whether to convict on misdemeanors or felonies. It opted for the misdemeanors because jurors did not unanimously agree that the behavior fit the legal definition of “extreme harassment.”
She says she hoped the verdicts send a message that “you need to watch your kids as best you can and be careful what you do on the Internet. You can get in trouble for it, obviously.”
After just over three days of testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause pointed to Drew during summations and told the jury, “Folks, that’s Josh Evans right there.”
Testimony included various witnesses who said Drew seemed nonchalant about the suicide, and allegedly said, “It’s not like I pulled the trigger.”
Steward had strongly argued against allowing the jury to hear the suicide evidence, saying Drew was not charged with murder but with computer-access violations and that the hanging evidence would be prejudicial. But the judge allowed the evidence.
In his summation, Steward argued the prosecution failed to prove Drew guilty of violating MySpace’s user agreement. He noted that it was Drew’s employee Ashley Grills who admittedly set up the phony Josh Evans account and who wrote many of the messages – including the final, hurtful remark, which wasn’t even over MySpace. That was an AOL instant message.
Grills was granted immunity and was a key prosecution witness.
The case was filed in Los Angeles federal court instead of in Missouri because the main MySpace computers accessed in the case are in Beverly Hills, where the online social mega-network is based.
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