A 49-year-old Missouri mother was convicted Wednesday of three misdemeanor federal charges for helping create a fake MySpace account used to torment a 13-year-old girl who wound up committing suicide.
Culminating the nation's first criminal cyber-bullying prosecution, Lori Drew was convicted by a Los Angeles jury of three misdemeanor counts of illegally accessing computers.
But the six-man, six-woman panel rejected more serious felony charges of using those computers to intentionally inflict emotional distress on 13-year-old Megan Meier. The panel deadlocked on a single felony count of conspiracy.
Drew showed no emotion as the verdict was read and had no comment as she left the courtroom with her daughter.
Meier's mother, Tina Meier, acknowledged she had wished for guilty verdicts on all four felonies, but she nonetheless called the three misdemeanor convictions "a victory" and hoped the national attention the trial received
would focus attention on the dark side of the Internet.
"This is not about vengeance," she said. "This is about justice for Megan -- and making sure this does not happen to anyone else. I don't want another family to have to endure this."
Prosecutors said Drew helped set up a fake MySpace profile using the name "Josh Evans," then helped her daughter and a family friend torment Megan Meier by first befriending the teen and then rejecting her -- culminating with a message telling the girl that the world would be a better place without her.
The teen, a rival and former friend of Drew's daughter, killed herself after that message was sent in October 2006. She was being treated for depression and attention deficit disorder at the time.
"There have to be stronger laws against this (sort of behavior)," U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien said outside court. "People think they can do anything they want on the Internet -- and they can't. If you're not watching what you're doing, you'd better be."
Drew faces a maximum sentence of three years in federal prison and a $300,000 fine, according to prosecutors. A sentencing date was not immediately set, but U.S. District Judge George Wu scheduled a Dec. 29 hearing on a defense
motion for a new trial.
"There's no satisfaction in any of this," said Drew's attorney, Dean Steward. "This is a deeply tragic case. The feeling was, somebody's gotta pay and a lot of people decided my client should be that person. But my client did
not use the Internet to intimidate or harass anyone."
Drew, Steward added, was "puzzled but encouraged" by the verdicts.
Wu, meanwhile, is still considering a second defense motion asking that the case be dismissed entirely.
"He may well decide to dismiss everything," Steward said.
Drew was originally charged with three felony counts of illegally accessing protected computers without authorization. She was also charged with conspiracy, although no co-conspirators were charged. If convicted of all the original counts, she could have faced up to 20 years in federal prison.
"Megan's legacy carries on," said Tina Meier, who now heads the Megan Meier Foundation, which educates people around the country about the effects of cyber-bullying on children. "I want her story to get out so people will think
carefully before they get on the Internet and harass people."
During closing arguments, O'Brien told jurors that Drew knew she was breaking the law by using the phony online persona and "just shrugged it off."
"Folks, that's Josh Evans right there," O'Brien said in his final argument, pointing at Drew. "You have a choice -- choose justice."
But Steward told the jury that prosecutors had no evidence to support any criminal charges, especially the intentional infliction of emotional distress on Megan.
The evidence, Steward said, amounted to "a size-11 foot in a size-six shoe. It just doesn't fit."
Drew did not take the stand during the trial, but her teenage daughter, Sarah, tearfully testified that her mother knew little about the MySpace profile.
"Megan was my best friend," Sarah Drew said.
The case was co-prosecuted by O'Brien, who is the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. It's rare for someone in his position in a major city to personally try a case, but O'Brien said the Megan Meier story was
impossible for him to ignore.
"Obviously, this case means a lot to me," he said. "We were touched by the tragedy here."
O'Brien brought federal charges against Drew after Missouri prosecutors declined to bring a case, concluding that while Drew's actions were reprehensible, they were not illegal.
O'Brien filed the charges in Los Angeles because Fox Interactive, which owns MySpace, is based in Beverly Hills.
There were a lot of obstacles, a lot of issues raised," he said. "This is the first time in the nation this particular charge has been charged in this way."
Despite the partial loss for his office, O'Brien said the verdicts showed the system worked as it should.
"We had 12 people -- peers of Lori Drew -- who a week ago never met each other, and they sat down and made a decision," he said. "We don't deal in terms of happiness or sadness (at the end of a trial). The defendant had a
thoughtful jury and that's how the system is supposed to work."
One of those jurors, a man who gave only his first name, Marcilo, said the panel did not feel Drew knowingly caused the emotional upset that drove Meier to suicide.
"That was really the balancing point," the juror said.
As for the undecided conspiracy charge, O'Brien said his office hasn't yet decided whether or not to retry Drew.