A suburban mother was found guilty today of lesser misdemeanor charges for her role in an online hoax that prosecutors said led to the suicide of her teenage neighbor.
Lori Drew, 49, was convicted on three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access to computers in a case that drew nationwide attention both for its novel use of a computer hacking law to combat alleged cyberbullying and for its tales of suburban neighborhood rivalries and teenage suicide.
The jury could not reach a verdict on a single felony conspiracy charge. Drew, who lives in a suburb of St. Louis, was acquitted of several felony counts of unauthorized access to computers to inflict emotional distress on 13-year-old Megan Meier.
Drew faces a possible sentence ranging from probation to three years in prison for the misdemeanor charges. She could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted of the felony charges.
Megan Meier committed suicide in October 2006 after the end of her online relationship with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. “Josh Evans” was the fictitious creation of Drew, her daughter and her assistant, who created the fake MySpace account to spy on Megan, prosecutors said.
Legally, as Drew’s lawyer Dean Steward repeatedly reminded the jury, the case was not about whether Drew caused Megan to commit suicide. Instead, Drew was accused of violating MySpace’s terms of service by obtaining personal information to inflict emotional distress on the teen.
But the emotional pull, and much of the testimony in the trial in federal court in Los Angeles, centered on the suicide. “The tragedy in this case is not just Megan Meier’s suicide. It’s the fact that it was so preventable,” U.S.attorney Thomas O’Brien said in his closing statement.
Megan killed herself after “Josh” told her the world would be better off without her, prosecutors said. The assistant, 20-year-old Ashley Grills, testified under a grant of immunity that she was the one who sent the final message. Drew’s daughter Sarah was also not charged.
Sarah told jurors her mother thought inventing “Josh” was a good idea but changed her mind two weeks later and told Grills to shut it down. But Grills testified that Drew orchestrated the hoax and knew Megan was depressed and suicidal. Prosecutors also said Drew later bragged about the prank to her friends and co-workers.