Judge tentatively dismisses case in MySpace hoax that led to teenage girl's suicide
A federal judge tentatively decided today to dismiss the case against a Missouri woman who had been convicted of computer fraud stemming from an Internet hoax that prompted a teenage girl to commit suicide.
Lori Drew of Dardenne Prairie, Mo., was convicted in November of three misdemeanor counts of illegally accessing a protected computer.
The decision by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu will not become final until his written ruling is filed, probably next week. Wu said he was concerned that if Drew was found guilty of violating the terms of service in using MySpace, anyone who violated the terms could be convicted of a crime.
Drew 50, was to be sentenced in May but Wu had delayed the sentencing until today, saying he wanted to consider the defense motion to dismiss the entire case.
A federal jury convicted Drew in November of the three misdemeanor charges but deadlocked on a felony conspiracy charge that would have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The verdict was a blow to prosecutors who indicted Drew on what some called tenuous legal grounds after authorities in Missouri declined to file criminal charges. Drew was widely criticized after the 2006 death of eighth-grader Megan Meier, an acquaintance of Drew's daughter.
Prosecutors said Drew, her daughter and her 18-year-old employee used a fake profile of a teenage boy to flirt with Megan online via Beverly Hills-based MySpace. Megan hanged herself with a belt after getting a message, purportedly from the boy, telling her that "the world would be a better place without you."
At the May hearing, Wu grilled Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Krause at length about whether the government had prosecuted Drew under the appropriate laws when they asserted that violating MySpace's terms of service amounted to a crime.
"Is a misdemeanor committed by the conduct which is done every single day by millions and millions of people?" Wu asked. "If these people do read [the terms of service] and still say they're 40 when they are 45, is that a misdemeanor?"
Krause argued that Drew's acts were criminal because she signed up for the fake account with the intention of harming Megan by humiliating her. Drew knew her acts were illegal and deleted the account shortly after Megan's death to cover up her crime, he contended.
Prosecutors had asked Wu to impose a sentence of three years. Defense attorneys argued for probation and vehemently criticized the prosecution in court filings, calling its argument "utterly absurd."
Megan's parents, Ron and Tina Meier, made statements in court in May describing their daughter as a loving but vulnerable girl who went fishing with her father and cared deeply for her friends. They asked Wu to impose the maximum prison sentence.
"It just sickens me that it was an adult playing with the mind of a 13-year-old child," Ron Meier said in May.
-- Alexandra Zavis
Photo: Lori Drew. Credit: Nick Ut / Associated Press