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3rd Story

MySpace suicide case verdict brings more questions than answers

In late November, a federal jury in Los Angeles convicted a Missouri
woman of three misdemeanor charges for her involvement in the creation of a fake MySpace profile that played a part in the suicide of a 13-year-old girl.

The verdict brought the five day trial regarding the October 2006 suicide to an end but the jury's decision raises many questions: Why did the jury reject three felony charges? Will Lori Drew, 49, end up in prison? Will her defense lawyer, H. Dean Steward, be successful in his request for a new trial? When will Judge George H. Wu rule on the defense motion to throw out the charges?

For the computer user, there is also the question of what does this case mean for the future of cyberspace? The federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was passed in 1986 and has been amended several times since then. Usually prosecutions under the act involve hackers. Legal and computer fraud experts say prosecuting someone using social networking sites improperly under the act is a large expansion of its application.

"As a result of the prosecutor's highly aggressive, if not unlawful, legal theory, it is now a crime to 'obtain information' from a web site in violation of its terms of service," New York defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor Matthew L. Levine was quoted as saying in a Nov. 26 New York Times story. "This cannot be what Congress meant when it enacted the law, but now you have it."

Tina Meier, the mother of the late Nicole Meier, said she was satisfied with the decision. She would like to see Drew receive the maximum sentence of three years in prison. Drew could also be fined up to $300,000.

"For me it's never been about vengeance. This is about justice," Meier was quoted as saying in a Nov. 27 story on The Times website.

Drew was found guilty of three misdemeanor counts of gaining unauthorized access to MySpace for the purpose of obtaining information. The jury unanimously rejected three felony charges that alleged Drew was using the unauthorized access as part of a scheme to inflict emotional distress on Meier. By opting for the misdemeanors, the jury was saying this was not Drew's intent. A fourth count was thrown out by Wu as the jury was deadlocked.

The prosecution stated during the trial that Drew, her then 13-year-old daughter Sarah, and Ashley Grills, a family friend and an employee of Drew's, created a MySpace profile of a teenage boy they called "Josh Evans." It was said that they wanted to know what Megan was saying about Sarah, a former friend. According to the New York Times, Megan had a history of depression and suicidal impulses.

After some weeks of cyber-friendship, "Evans" abruptly sent a message saying "The world would be a better place without you." Grills, testifying under an immunity agreement, said Megan wrote back saying: "You're the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over." She hung herself in her bedroom that afternoon.

Missouri police and legal professionals worked on the case but could not find any state laws that they felt applied. About a year after Megan's suicide, the Meier family was not satisfied and went to the media. Thomas P. O'Brien, the United States attorney in Los Angeles, took the case on. As the MySpace servers are located in California the case was prosecuted in that state.

A question raised during the trial was whether the case was an effort by O'Brien, the United States attorney in Los Angeles, to keep his job when newly elected president Barrack Obama comes into power.

"O'Brien wants to continue to be U.S. attorney into the Obama administration, and he wants a victory for that reason," Steward said. "It's to his discredit" that he brought these charges.

O'Brien, a parent, said the case means a lot to him and that is why he made the unusual decision to prosecute it himself.

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

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