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Human drama fills landmark Internet case

The case of U.S. vs. Lori Drew is viewed in legal circles as landmark Internet law, but as outlined in government documents with its neighborhood feuds and a teen's suicide, it reads more like a plotline for a made-for-TV drama.
Internet Suicide
This Sept. 4, 2008 photo shows Lori Drew, a Missouri woman who allegedly perpetrated a MySpace hoax that drove her daughter's 13-year-old classmate to suicide, as she leaves a Los Angeles court room. Nick Ut / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The case of U.S. vs. Lori Drew is viewed in legal circles as landmark Internet law, but as outlined in government documents with its neighborhood feuds and a teen's suicide, it reads more like a plotline for a made-for-TV drama.

In fact, as the judge has noted, the case of the 49-year-old Missouri woman accused of taunting a 13-year-old girl on the Internet to the point where she committed suicide has already inspired an episode of "Law & Order."

U.S. District Judge George Wu said he considered a defense motion to exclude evidence of the suicide from the trial that begins Tuesday. But he finally decided it would be futile since people being called for jury duty most likely know about it.

Instead, he said he would instruct the jurors that the case is about whether Drew violated the terms of service of the MySpace social networking site, not about whether she caused the suicide of Megan Meier.

Drew has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing computers without authorization. Each count carries a potential sentence of five years in prison.

Drew's lawyer, Dean Steward, argued that no matter what the judge tells the jury, once they hear the story, they will not see it as a case about violating rules in cyberspace.

"They will conclude it's about the tragic death of a young girl," he said. "The jury is going to end up thinking that Lori Drew is being tried for the death of Megan Meier."

Not so, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause, but his memorandum presents a compelling narrative of discord and death in the town of O'Fallon, Mo.

The saga began years ago when the Drew and Meier families were friends in the St. Louis suburb. Their daughters were the same age, attended school together and were friends.

Megan, who is referred to in court documents as M.T.M. because she was a minor, spent time with the Drews and traveled with them, the prosecutor said.

"However, their relationship was, at times, rocky," the document notes. "On ... occasions, M.T.M. feuded with defendant's daughter."

Megan's mother, Christina Meier, confided in Drew that she was concerned for her daughter's mental health and felt she was "particularly vulnerable," Krause said.

Eventually, the girls drifted apart and in 2005, Megan transferred to a new school.

In the summer of 2006, Drew became concerned that Megan was spreading malicious rumors on MySpace about her daughter. The mother discussed the matter with her daughter and her 18-year-old assistant, Ashley Grills, the document said.

The three plotted to invent "an attractive male teenager" on MySpace and approach Megan using the false identity. They allegedly planned to find out what she was saying about Drew's daughter.

Grills, who is expected to testify as the government's star witness, has said she warned they would get in trouble if unmasked. But she said Drew assured her that "many people created fake identities on the Internet."

Prosecutors declined to comment on whether Grills has been given immunity in exchange for her testimony.

"Josh Evans" was born on MySpace on Sept. 20, 2006, and was introduced as a new boy in town who was homeschooled and lonely.

The document said "he" contacted Megan, who quickly became smitten. After some innocent messages, Drew encouraged her co-conspirators to have him "flirt" with Megan.

Complications arose when another neighborhood girl obtained the password for the "Josh Evans" account and sent messages to Megan saying Josh no longer wanted to be friends with her. A dispute erupted and on Oct. 16, 2006, Grills typed a message telling Megan "that the world would be a better place without (her) in it."

Megan ran upstairs and her mother found her about 20 minutes later hanging in her closet. She died the next day in the hospital.

Steward said outside court that part of Drew's defense would be that she was not at home when the message was sent.

Grills said during an interview with the ABC's "Good Morning America" last spring that she wrote the message to Megan in an effort to end the online relationship with "Josh" because Grills felt the joke had gone too far.

When she learned of the suicide, Drew told her "co-schemers" to delete the MySpace account, Krause wrote. She called the other girl who had become part of the MySpace conversation and told her to "keep her mouth shut" and to "stay off the MySpace."

Megan's death was investigated by Missouri authorities, but no state charges were filed because no laws appeared to apply to the case. But in California, U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien, noting that MySpace was headquartered in Los Angeles, found a statute that seemed to apply.

O'Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It had been used in the past to address computer hacking.