MySpace suicide leads to ‘travesty’ trial
Megan Meier committed suicide when her ‘boyfriend’ dumped her online - but then he turned out to be a 49-year-old woman
Megan Meier and Lori Drew's daughter were best of friends. Then, as teenage girls do, they had a row and drifted apart - and 13-year-old Megan (pictured above with Lori Drew), it's claimed, started spreading malicious rumours about Drew's daughter around the Missouri town they lived in. The Drews decided to get their own back, online. The 'cyberbullying' that then took place led, it's alleged, to Megan's suicide, and to a federal prosecution in Los Angeles that's the first of its kind. Certainly, the case is seen as a landmark in internet law - and one that's led to outrage in some legal circles.
Forty-nine-year-old Lori Drew allegedly cobbled together a spurious MySpace profile and masqueraded online as 16-year-old 'Josh Evans', a new kid in town who became the online suitor of Megan. After 'Josh Evans' told Megan that the world would be a better place without her in it, the distraught teen hanged herself later the same day in her bedroom cupboard.
Megan, however, is not the alleged victim of the crimes of which Drew was indicted in May. And Los Angeles, where jury selection in Drew's trial began yesterday, is 1,800 miles from Dardenne Prairie, the St Louis suburb where she lives. But MySpace is based in Beverly Hills, and federal prosecutors say the social networking website was the victim of her violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a law normally used to prosecute computer hackers which has never been applied before to cyber-bullying. "This adult woman allegedly used the internet to target a teenage girl with horrendous ramifications," Thomas O'Brien, the US attorney in Los Angeles, said when the indictment was announced.
Drew's lawyers and others have attacked the case as egregious prosecutorial excess. "The government, in its zeal to charge Lori Drew with something, anything, has tried to criminalize everyday, ordinary conduct," the defence said in one brief. But the trial judge denied a motion to dismiss the case last week and - perhaps most tellingly - also said the government could present evidence of Megan's suicide. The defence had argued that the suicide had nothing to do with the computer abuse charges and would only inflame the jury.
According to court papers, Megan and Drew's daughter had once been friends but by the summer of 2006 had drifted apart. Concerned about Megan's supposed rumour-mongering, Drew, her daughter and Ashley Grills, an 18-year-old employee of her shopping coupon business, allegedly devised a scheme in September 2006 to approach Megan online as Josh Evans, an "attractive male teenager" who was new to Dardenne Prairie. Once they had gained Megan's confidence, they would be able to find out what she was saying about Drew's daughter on MySpace.
When ‘Josh’ told Megan the world would be better without her she hanged herself
The plan went so well that Megan became "smitten" with 'Josh' - allegedly giving Drew the idea of luring her to a shopping mall where she and her confederates would humiliate her by revealing that her suitor was a cyber-fiction. But before things got that far, 'Josh' abruptly broke off the relationship on October 16, 2006. Grills, still in character, messaged Megan "that the world would be a better place without [Megan] in it," a court brief says.
The CFAA makes it a federal crime to "intentionally access ... a computer without authorization", use information obtained from the computer and commit the offence "in furtherance of any ... tortious act". Drew's computer access was allegedly unauthorized since MySpace's terms of service prohibit members from soliciting information from anyone under 18 and using information obtained from the site to "harass, abuse or harm" other people. As for the "tortious act", prosecutors say Drew intended to inflict emotional distress on Megan.
One law professor has called the case a "travesty", and Drew defence lawyer Allen Steward has warned that: "If violating user agreements is a crime, millions of Americans are probably committing crimes on a daily basis and don't know it." As for Drew, she faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted of all four charges in the indictment. ·
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