By Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 -- A Missouri woman who posed as a 16-year-old boy on MySpace.com to woo and then rebuff a troubled teenage girl who later committed suicide was found guilty Wednesday of three misdemeanor charges, but no felonies, by a federal jury.
The jury rejected felony charges against Lori Drew of accessing a computer without authorization to inflict emotional distress. Drew, 49, of O'Fallon, Mo., allegedly posed as the boy to harass a former friend of her daughter's. The jury did, however, find her guilty of three misdemeanor counts of violating the terms of service with MySpace.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict on a count of conspiracy.
The verdict in the nationally watched cyber-bullying case comes nearly two years after the death of Megan Meier, 13, who is referred to in court documents as "M.T.M." Megan hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet within an hour of being rejected by "Josh Evans," the fictitious identity that Drew assumed on the popular networking Web site.
A federal grand jury indicted Drew on four counts in May, alleging that she and others -- including her daughter Sarah, then 13, and an 18-year-old assistant -- registered as a member of MySpace to contact Megan and reel her into what she believed was an online romance with a new boy in town. Each count carried a maximum of five years in prison, but the lesser misdemeanor charges are likely to mean no jail time.
Prosecutors alleged that Drew and her employee violated MySpace's "terms of service," which prohibit using fraudulent registration information, obtaining personal information about juvenile members, and using the service to harass, abuse or harm others.
During the five-day trial, they portrayed Drew as masterminding a scheme to humiliate Megan even though she knew that the girl -- once her daughter's best friend -- had depression. Drew wanted to know whether Megan was spreading rumors about her daughter, prosecutors argued, and bragged about the hoax.
Defense attorney H. Dean Steward said prosecutors tried to mislead jurors into thinking the case was about homicide. Reminding them that it was a computer-related case, he said the question was whether Drew violated MySpace's service agreement -- a document, he said, that "nobody reads."
The verdict underscores the complexities of the case. Some legal experts and civil liberties groups said a felony conviction would mean that millions of people who violate the terms of service of the Web sites they visit could become criminally liable. Experts also said that if violating such terms is a crime, then the sites that write the agreements essentially could function as lawmakers or prosecutors.
Megan had struggled with depression since third grade, was bullied in school and had low self-esteem, her parents, Ron and Tina Meier, said in a television interview a year ago. In 2006, they allowed her to open a MySpace account under their supervision and said the messages from Josh were the first affectionate ones their daughter had ever received.
Four weeks into the exchanges, Josh broke off contact with Megan, punctuated, her father said, by a message that "the world would be a better place without" her. Within an hour of receiving it, Megan committed suicide.
Ron Meier said he went online days later to contact Josh, but the MySpace profile had been deleted. A neighbor later told the Meiers that Josh was created by a mother down the street, a woman who had attended their daughter's funeral.
The resulting public outrage led state and federal prosecutors to examine the case, but after a meeting in March 2007, "it was decided that the case should be declined for federal prosecution," according to an internal memo from the FBI's St. Louis office.
Federal prosecutors in the Los Angeles area, where MySpace's servers are, picked up the case.