MYSPACE TRIAL GOES TO JURY
A closely watched cyber-bullying case in which a Missouri woman is accused of creating a fake MySpace account and using it to torment a teenage girl who later killed herself was turned over to a federal jury in Los Angeles on Monday.
The case centers on events leading up to the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier. An eighth-grader in suburban St. Louis, Meier hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet two years ago after she was suddenly dumped by someone she believed was a 16-year-old boy she’d met on the MySpace website. But the boy, Josh Evans, didn’t exist.
“Folks, that’s Josh Evans right there,” U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien told jurors, pointing to the defendant, 49-year-old Lori Drew, moments before the jury was given the case.
Drew showed no emotion as she returned the gaze of the six men and six women who will consider her fate.
During a five-day trial in front of U.S. District Judge George H. Wu, prosecutors sought to portray Drew as a callous and reckless woman who gleefully took part in the hoax on Meier, despite knowing the girl had struggled with depression for years and had a vulnerable psyche.
Among the government’s witnesses were a close friend of Drew’s, a business associate and her hairdresser, each of whom testified that Drew had admitted playing a role in the hoax.
Drew’s attorney, H. Dean Steward, accused O’Brien and his colleagues in the U.S. attorney’s office of engaging in a misguided prosecution that was meant to exact revenge for the tragic death of a pretty young girl, even though Drew is not charged with her killing.
“You’d think this was a homicide case, but it’s not,” Steward told jurors during his closing arguments.
He insisted his client is not guilty of the charges the government did file -- in essence, intentionally violating the rules governing the use of computers on MySpace and then using a computer to intentionally inflict emotional distress.
When the government rested its case Friday afternoon, Steward asked to have the charges thrown out, arguing that Drew could not have intentionally violated MySpace rules because there was no evidence she’d ever read them. Judge Wu, after considering the matter over the weekend, said Monday morning that it was “a complicated legal issue” that he had not yet resolved.
He allowed the trial to proceed, but said he would take the motion to dismiss under submission, meaning he could decide to throw out the case even if the jury reached a verdict.
Authorities in Missouri investigated the circumstances surrounding Megan’s death in the months after it occurred but concluded there was no statute under which Drew could be charged. O’Brien’s office asserted jurisdiction this spring, based on the fact that MySpace is based in Beverly Hills.
The trial, featuring tearful testimony from Megan Meier’s mother, Tina, about the night she discovered her daughter hanging in the makeshift noose, has played out before an often packed courtroom and drawn media attention from across the country.
Prosecutors have touted the case as the first of its kind in the nation.
According to prosecutors, Drew; her daughter, Sarah, then 13; and Drew’s employee, Ashley Grills, then 18, set up an account in the name of Josh Evans because they believed Megan Meier had been spreading rumors about Sarah Drew.
The bogus profile, featuring a photo of an attractive boy who’d supposedly just moved to town, was designed to lure Megan into an online relationship in which she might repeat some of the rumors she was allegedly spreading about Sarah.
The ploy worked to an extent. Megan Meier began exchanging e-mails with the boy she came to know as Josh.
The exchanges were innocent at first but turned nasty on the afternoon of Oct. 16, 2006.
Megan received an e-mail from “Josh” that day telling her that “the world would be a better place without you” and to “have a [lousy] rest of your life.”
“You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over,” Megan allegedly replied before tearfully going up to her room and making good on the threat.
The government’s star witness was Grills, a longtime family friend of the Drews and an employee of Lori Drew’s coupon business.
Grills, who was given immunity in exchange for her testimony, said it was her idea to make up the MySpace profile and that she did most of the messaging with Meier. But she said Lori Drew was aware of what she was doing and sometimes helped formulate the messages that were sent to Megan.
Grills testified that she warned Drew that what they were doing was illegal but that Drew brushed her off, telling her, “People do it all the time.”
In his closing arguments, Steward questioned Grills’ intelligence and suggested she was exaggerating Drew’s role to make sure she didn’t wind up getting charged with a crime.
He said Grills’ testimony was inconsistent with earlier statements she’d made to authorities and to an interviewer on “Good Morning America.” The line about Josh Evans being “the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over” didn’t come up until just days before trial, he said.
“It’s just a lie,” Steward told jurors. “When you think of Ashley Grills, bless her heart, the word ‘pathetic’ has got to come up.”