LOS ANGELES – A federal judge tentatively threw out the convictions of a Missouri mother for her role in a MySpace hoax directed at a 13-year-old neighbor girl who later killed herself.
In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge George Wu acquitted Lori Drew of misdemeanor counts of accessing computers without authorization.
Wu says his ruling will become final when he issues it in writing.
Drew was convicted in a trial in November, but the judge says that if she is to be found guilty of illegally accessing computers, anyone who has ever violated the social networking site's terms of service would be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Prosecutors had sought the maximum three-year prison sentence and a $300,000 fine.
A defense motion to dismiss the convictions has received a lengthy review from Wu, who delayed Drew's sentencing in May to review the testimony of two prosecution witnesses.
Much attention has been paid to Drew's case, primarily because it was the nation's first cyberbullying trial.
Prosecutors say Drew sought to humiliate Megan Meier by helping create a fictitious teen boy on the social networking site and sending flirtatious messages to the girl in his name. The fake boy then dumped Megan in a message saying the world would be better without her. She hanged herself a short time later in October 2006 in the St. Louis suburb of Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
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.
Drew's attorney, Dean Steward, said charges should have never been brought against his client and prosecution's decision to seek a three-year prison sentence for misdemeanor convictions was "shocking."
"The government's case is all about making Lori Drew a public symbol of cyberbullying," Steward said in a previous court filing. "The government has created a fiction that Lori Drew somehow caused (Megan's) death, and it wants a long prison sentence to make its fiction seem real."
Judge Wu acknowledged in May he was concerned that sending Drew to prison for violating a Web site's service terms might set a dangerous precedent. Wu noted that millions of people either don't read service terms, as happened in Drew's case.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Drew violated MySpace service rules by setting up the phony profile for a boy named "Josh Evans" with the help of her then-13-year-old daughter Sarah and business assistant Ashley Grills. They posted 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."
Prosecutors believe Drew and her daughter, who was friends with Megan, created the profile to find out if Megan was spreading rumors about Sarah. Grills testified she received a message from Megan in mid-2006, calling Drew's daughter a lesbian.
Grills, who testified under a promise of immunity, allegedly sent the final, insulting message to Megan before she killed herself. Prosecutors said Megan sent a response saying, "'You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over."'
Jurors decided Drew was not guilty of the more serious felonies of intentionally causing emotional harm while accessing computers without authorization. The jury could not reach an unanimous verdict on a felony conspiracy charge.
The trial was held in Los Angeles because the servers of the social networking site are in the area.