Prosecutor: Woman plotted hoax that led to suicide

By: AP
By: AP

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- A Missouri woman, her teenage daughter and an employee used an elaborate Internet ruse to terrorize a 13-year-old neighbor girl who later committed suicide, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday.

U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien told jurors during his opening statement that Lori Drew helped create a false identity on the social networking site MySpace. Posing online as a teenage boy, Drew befriended Megan Meier, he said.

Evidence shows that Drew opened the MySpace account and "fully intended to hurt and prey on Megan's psyche," O'Brien told jurors. Drew is accused of harassing Megan with cruel messages, which ultimately led her to take her life in 2006.

Prosecutors characterize the case as the nation's first cyber-bullying case, and the results from it could set legal precedents regarding online harassment.

Drew has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing computers without authorization. Each count carries a potential sentence of five years in prison.

O'Brien said it's the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It had been used in the past to address computer hacking.

Defense attorney Dean Steward told jurors that Drew did not violate the Computer Use and Fraud Act and reminded them she was not facing charges dealing with the suicide.

"This is not a homicide case," Steward said.

Before the trial began, Steward tried to get U.S. District Judge George Wu to forbid mention of the suicide. Wu rejected the request but said he would instruct jurors that the case was about whether Drew violated the terms of service of MySpace, not about whether she caused Meier's suicide.

Prosecutors have said Drew targeted Megan because she thought the girl was spreading malicious rumors on MySpace about the defendant's daughter, Sarah, who was 13 at the time.

Drew discussed the matter with her daughter and Drew's then 18-year-old assistant, Ashley Grills, and the three allegedly plotted to invent "an attractive male teenager" on MySpace to find out what was being said about her daughter.

Megan hanged herself after allegedly receiving a message saying the world would be better off without her. Before the suicide, O'Brien said, Megan sent a response to the message saying, "'You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.'"

Jury selection ended earlier Tuesday. Questionnaires completed by prospective jurors led Steward to question whether Drew could receive a fair trial. He said that the forms indicated about 80 percent of the candidates had heard about the case and that half had formed "devastating" opinions about Drew.

The case is being prosecuted in Los Angeles because MySpace's computer servers are in the area.

(This version CORRECTS the age of the defendant's daughter in 2006. She was 13, not 18.))

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