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Not guilty plea in Internet suicide case

A woman has pleaded not guilty to charges in a MySpace hoax allegedly linked to a 13-year-old girl's suicide.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Missouri woman pleaded not guilty in Los Angeles federal court Monday to charges in an Internet hoax blamed for a 13-year-old girl's suicide.

Lori Drew, 49, stood quietly beside her attorney Monday. She pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress. She is free on $20,000 bond.

The proceeding lasted only a few minutes. Drew and her lawyer declined to comment to reporters waiting outside the courtroom.

Drew, of suburban St. Louis, Mo., is accused of helping to create a MySpace account that appeared to belong to a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. The boy did not exist.

Drew's daughter had been a friend of 13-year-old neighbor Megan Meier and the fake account was used to send cruel messages to the girl, including one stating the world would be better off without her. Megan hanged herself in 2006.

Drew has denied creating the account or sending messages to Meier.

The charges were filed in California where MySpace is based. MySpace is a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Fox Interactive Media Inc., which is owned by News Corp.

Drew's case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge George Wu and her trial scheduled for July 29. A status conference was scheduled for June 26. U.S. attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek said Drew would be allowed to return home pending trial.

Each of the four counts against Drew carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

New ground in Internet lawDrew's lawyer has said he will challenge the charges.

Experts have said the case could break new ground in Internet law. The statute used to indict Drew usually applies to Internet hackers who illegally access accounts to get information.

U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien has acknowledged this is the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case.

Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Southern California, has said use of statute, known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, may be open to challenge.

Lonergan said the crimes covered by the law involve obtaining information from a computer, not sending messages out to harass someone.

"Here it is the flow of information away from the computer," she said. "It's a very creative, aggressive use of the statute. But they may have a legally tough time meeting the elements."

James Chadwick, a Palo Alto attorney who specializes in Internet and media law, said he has never seen the statute applied to the sending of messages.

He said it was probable that liability for the girl's death would not be an issue in the case. "As tragic as it is," he said, "You can't start imposing liability on people for being cruel."

Missouri police didn't file any charges against Drew in part because there was no applicable state law. In response to the case, Missouri legislators gave final approval to a bill making cyber harassment illegal.