November 27, 2008

No Felony Charges In MySpace Suicide

A suburban mother who prosecutors say caused a 13-year-old girl to commit suicide by tormenting her through a phony MySpace persona was acquitted of three felony charges by a U.S. District Court jury.  

The indictment was handed down in Los Angeles after Missouri authorities declined to prosecute the Missouri woman.

Although acquitted on felony charges, the jury found Lori Drew guilty of three misdemeanor counts, but was deadlocked on a fourth count of conspiracy.

Had Drew been convicted on the felony charges, she would have faced up to 20 years in federal prison.

The high-profile case made headlines throughout the world, resulting in calls for social networking Web sites to prevent such activities.

Drew, who now faces a sentence ranging from probation to three years in prison, displayed no reaction as the verdicts were read, and refused to answer questions from reporters.

According to prosecutors, Drew created the fake persona of a 16-year-old boy after her daughter had a falling out with neighbor Megan Meier.  Prosecutors say Drew and others used the phony character to woo Meier and then abruptly end the relationship, saying the world would be better off without her. Meier hanged herself in October 2006 after reading the notes.

Prosecutors maintained that Drew, her daughter and a teenage employee created the phony profile to publicly humiliate Meier and seek revenge for bad things Meier had said about Draw's daughter.

Juror Shirley Hanley, 59, told Reuters that she and her fellow jurists cleared Drew of the most serious charges because they could not be sure who typed the MySpace messages that so upset Meier.

But the teen's death, she said, made the case an emotional one.

"You fan your eyes to try to keep tears from falling," she said, referring to the jury's deliberations."

"This is about justice," said Megan's mother Tina Meier, after the verdict.

"It's justice not only for Megan but its justice for everybody who has had to go through this with the computer and being harassed."

Experts called the indictment, a first of its kind, an awkward application of the federal statute on which it was based.  However, the verdict came down as many had suspected.

"I'm not surprised at all at the verdict. It's what prosecutors commonly call a compromise verdict," Rebecca Lonergan, a law professor at University of Southern California and former federal prosecutor, told Reuters.

"The thing about this case that really bothered members of the public is the teenager's suicide, and the involvement of a grown woman in (allegedly) causing that suicide," she said.

"And the main problem is that the charges weren't about the suicide. They were about computer hacking, essentially."

Lonergan said she had heard from members of Congress who were  interested in writing new laws that specifically address the matter of cyber-bullying and online harassment.

A MySpace spokesman told Reuters the company did not tolerate cyber-bullying, and that it had cooperated with prosecutors.

"MySpace respects the jury's decision and will continue to work with industry experts to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and the harm it can potentially cause," said the company's Chief Security Officer, Hemanshu Nigam, in a statement.


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