Image: Tina Meier
Tom Gannam  /  AP
Tina Meier holds two pictures of her daughter Megan who committed suicide last October after receiving cruel messages on MySpace, in St. Charles, Mo.
By
updated 8/13/2008 11:41:55 AM ET 2008-08-13T15:41:55

Federal prosecutors defended their use of a cyber crime statute in the case of a Missouri woman charged with using a MySpace hoax that allegedly led a 13-year-old girl to commit suicide.

The prosecutors, rebutting a defense motion to dismiss the case, argued in court documents filed Tuesday that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is relevant to the case against Lori Drew.

The statute used to indict the woman usually applies to Internet hackers who illegally access accounts to get information. Drew is accused helping to create a false-identity account on the MySpace social networking site and harassing her young neighbor with cruel messages.

"Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon, as is social networking," Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause wrote in a legal brief. "It is, therefore, not surprising that there have been relatively few prosecutions in this area."

The motions repeatedly stressed the rapidly changing state of law involving the Internet and social networking and argued that Congress envisioned the statute "as a tool to address all manner of cyber crimes."

Krause noted that only recently did the Boy Scout's Manual include advice on cyberbullying.

"Moreover, the vehicle for the cyberbullying at issue here, a social networking Web site, only became mainstream after 2000."

The government also answered a defense claim that the charges against Drew are vague and fail to state how the law is being applied to her. The motion said government charges are clear and meet all requirements for clarity under 9th Circuit rules.

Drew allegedly used her false-identity MySpace account to convince her neighbor Megan Meier she was chatting with a teenage boy.

Meier, who was being treated for attention deficit disorder and depression, hanged herself in 2006, allegedly after receiving cruel messages including one saying the world would be better off without her.

Missouri authorities did not file any charges because at the time they could not find any laws that applied.

In May, however, a Los Angeles federal grand jury indicted Drew on charges of conspiracy and accessing computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress. She pleaded not guilty.

The case was filed in Los Angeles because MySpace's servers are in Los Angeles County. FBI agents in St. Louis and Los Angeles investigated the case.

Legal experts have said use of the federal cyber crime statute on accessing computers may be open to challenge.

Previously, the law against accessing protected computers has been used in hacking and trademark infringement cases in which the crime is obtaining information from a computer, not sending harassing messages.

Missouri recently updated its laws against harassment to include cyberbullying. Previously the laws only outlawed harassment via telephone and written communication.

Drew's trial in Los Angeles is set for Oct. 7.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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