ST. LOUIS – The mother of a girl who committed suicide at age 13 after being subjected to an Internet hoax says a woman's conviction in the case shows that people who use the "Internet as a weapon" will face consequences.
Lori Drew, 49, of O'Fallon, Mo., was convicted Wednesday in federal court in Los Angeles on misdemeanor charges of accessing computers without authorization in a landmark cyberbullying trial, though her lawyer said he still hopes a judge will dismiss the charges against her.
Prosecutors said Drew and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to teenage neighbor Megan Meier. The "boy" dumped Megan in 2006, telling her: "The world would be a better place without you."
Megan hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet.
Megan's mother, Tina Meier, said in a telephone interview Friday that she'll ask at sentencing that Drew serve the maximum penalty, three years in prison and a $300,000 fine.
She said she's grateful that federal prosecutors in California filed charges after Missouri officials did not. MySpace, a social networking service, has computer servers in California.
Meier said Drew's conviction didn't bring closure for her daughter's 2006 death, but she said she takes some comfort in her work to protect children against bullying and will continue speaking publicly around the nation.
She believes the verdict against Drew will lead to more action to prevent, and prosecute, bullying and harassment. "We all have to be able to understand if you do something wrong, you have to face the consequences," Meier said.
Drew's lawyer, Dean Steward, said he is not yet planning an appeal because he had asked U.S. District Judge George Wu to dismiss the charges during the trial and Steward has said the matter is still under advisement. A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 29.
Steward said the jury had only determined that Drew had violated her terms of service with MySpace, not that cyberbullying had occurred. The terms prohibit the use of phony names and harassment of other MySpace members.
Tina Meier works with the WiredSafety.org group to tell Megan's story in an effort to protect children from cyberbullying. Parry Aftab, a lawyer and executive director of the group, said she believes Drew's conviction will change the environment related to cyberbullying and cyberstalking.
"The verdict has made it very clear if you use the Internet as a weapon to hurt others, especially young, vulnerable teens, you're going to have to answer to a jury. This is not acceptable."
"I don't have any satisfaction in the jury's decision," said Drew's lawyer, Dean Steward. "I don't think these charges should have ever been brought."
Tina Meier, the mother of the dead girl, said Drew deserves the maximum of three years behind bars. "It's not about vengeance; it's about justice," she said.
Prosecutors said Drew and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to teenage neighbor Megan Meier. The "boy" then dumped Megan in 2006, saying, "The world would be a better place without you." Megan promptly hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet.
Prosecutors said Drew wanted to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about Drew's teenage daughter. They said Drew knew Megan suffered from depression and was emotionally fragile.
"Lori Drew decided to humiliate a child," U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, told the jury during closing arguments. "The only way she could harm this pretty little girl was with a computer. She chose to use a computer to hurt a little girl, and for four weeks she enjoyed it."
O'Brien, who pronounced the case the nation's first cyberbullying trial, said the jury's decision sent a worthy message: "If you have children who are on the Internet and you are not watching what they are doing, you better be."
Most members of the six-man, six-woman jury left court without speaking to reporters. One juror, who identified himself by his first name only, Marcilo, indicated jurors were not convinced Drew's actions involved the intent alleged by prosecutors.
"Some of the jurors just felt strongly that it wasn't tortious and everybody needed to stay with their feeling. That was really the balancing point," he said.
The case hinged on an unprecedented — and, some legal experts say, highly questionable — application of computer-fraud law.
Drew was not directly charged with causing Megan's death. Instead, prosecutors indicted her under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which in the past has been used in hacking and trademark theft cases.
Among other things, Drew was charged with conspiring to violate the fine print in MySpace's terms-of-service agreement, which prohibits the use of phony names and harassment of other MySpace members.
"This was a very aggressive, if not misguided, theory," said Matt Levine, a New York-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "Unfortunately, there's not a law that covers every bad thing in the world. It's a bad idea to use laws that have very different purpose."
Drew's lawyer, Steward, contended his client had little to do with the content of the messages and was not at home when the final one was sent. Steward also argued that nobody reads the fine print on service agreements.
Prosecutors said Drew, her then-13-year-old daughter Sarah and Drew's 18-year-old business assistant Ashley Grills set up the phony MySpace profile for a boy named "Josh Evans," posting a photo of a bare-chested boy with tousled brown hair. "Josh" then told Megan she was "sexi" and assured her, "i love you so much."
Grills allegedly sent the final, insulting message to Megan before she killed herself in the St. Louis suburb of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
Missouri authorities said there was no state law under which Drew could be charged. But federal prosecutors in California claimed jurisdiction because MySpace is based in Beverly Hills.
Sarah Drew testified she never saw her mother use the MySpace account. But Grills, testifying under immunity from prosecution, said she saw Drew type at least one message under the name Josh Evans.
After the suicide, Missouri passed a law against cyber-harassment. Similar federal legislation has been proposed on Capitol Hill.
The trial's outcome was a victory for prosecutors despite the lack of a felony conviction, said Nick Akerman, a New York lawyer who specializes in cases involving the federal computer act.
"What you learned is that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is an extremely important tool in the federal arsenal against computer crime," he said.
MySpace said in a statement that it "respects the jury's decision and will continue to work with industry experts to raise awareness of cyberbullying and the harm it can potentially cause."