Mom guilty in online hoax

Mo. woman convicted of 3 misdemeanors in suicide case

November 27, 2008|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES - A federal jury handed down yesterday what legal experts said was the country's first cyberbullying verdict, convicting a Missouri woman of three misdemeanor charges of computer fraud for her involvement in creating a phony account on MySpace to trick a teenager, who later committed suicide.

The jury deadlocked on a fourth count of conspiracy against Lori Drew, 49, and U.S. District Judge George Wu declared a mistrial on that charge.

While it was unclear how severely Drew will be punished - the jury reduced the charges to misdemeanors from felonies, and no sentencing date was set - the conviction was highly significant, computer fraud experts said, because it was the first time that a federal statute designed to combat computer crimes was used to prosecute what were essentially abuses of a user agreement on a social networking site.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Drew could face up to three years in prison and $300,000 in fines, though she has no previous criminal record and her lawyer has asked for a new trial.

In a highly unusual move, Thomas P. O'Brien, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, prosecuted the case with two subordinates after law enforcement officials in Missouri determined Drew had broken no local laws.

O'Brien, who asserted jurisdiction on the theory that MySpace is based in Los Angeles, where its servers are housed, said the verdict sent an "overwhelming message" to users of the Internet.

"If you are going to attempt to annoy or go after a little girl and you're going to use the Internet to do so," he said, "this office and others across the country will hold you responsible."

During the five-day trial, prosecutors portrayed Drew as working in concert with her daughter, Sarah, who was 13 at the time, and Ashley Grills, a family friend and employee of Drew's magazine coupon business in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.

Testimony showed that they created a good-looking teenage boy, "Josh Evans," as an Internet identity on MySpace to communicate with Sarah's neighborhood nemesis, Megan Meier, who was 13 and had a history of depression and suicidal impulses.

After weeks of online courtship with "Josh," Megan was distressed one afternoon in October 2006, according to testimony at the trial, when she received an e-mail message from him that said, "the world would be a better place without you."

Grills, 20, testified under an immunity agreement that shortly after that message was sent, Megan wrote back, "You're the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over." Megan hanged herself that same afternoon in her bedroom.

While the jury appeared to reject the government's contention that Drew intended to harm Megan - a notion underling the felony charges - the convictions signaled the 12 jurors' belief that Drew nonetheless violated federal laws that prohibit accessing a computer without authorization.

Specifically, the jury found Drew guilty of accessing a computer without authorization on three occasions, a reference to the fraudulent postings on MySpace in the name of Josh Evans.

Legal and computer fraud experts said that the application of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, passed in 1986 and amended multiple times, appeared to be expanding with technology and the growth of social networking on the Internet. More typically, prosecutions under the act have involved cases involving people who hack into computer systems.

"As a result of the prosecutor's highly aggressive - if not unlawful - legal theory," said Matthew L. Levine, a former federal prosecutor who works as a defense lawyer in New York, "it is now a crime to 'obtain information' from a Web site in violation of its terms of service. This cannot be what Congress meant when it enacted the law, but now you have it."

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