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Trial begins in MySpace suicide

November 19, 2008 9:46:28 AM PST
A prosecutor said Wednesday a woman "preyed upon the psyche of a troubled 13-year-old girl" when taunting e-mail messages were sent to a teen who later killed herself, but a defense lawyer suggested his client was also a victim and was being blamed for messages she never sent. The opening salvos came in the emotionally charged case of Lori Drew, said to be the nation's first criminal cyber-bullying prosecution.

The case stems from the 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself at her home in the suburban St. Louis enclave of O'Fallon, Mo. She'd allegedly been harassed online by Drew, the mother of a teenage rival and onetime pal of Meier's. The two families lived four days apart.

"The defendant knew Megan Meier was depressed, suicidal and boy- crazy," prosecutor Thomas O'Brien, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, told the six-man, six-woman jury.

Drew set out "to tease, embarass, humiliate, make fun of and hurt her," he said.

Drew's attorney, Dean Steward, in his opening statement, stressed that his client is not charged in the teenager's death, but with computer fraud and conspiracy.

"This is a computer fraud and abuse case ... not a homicide case," the defense attorney said. "This was a deeply tragic case for everybody -- most of all for Megan Meier."

Attorneys questioned more than 125 prospective jurors over a day and half before choosing a panel this afternoon. Steward said questionnaires indicated that about 80 percent of the pool had heard about the Drew case, and half of those had formed "devastating" opinions about his client.

About a dozen of the most vehement were dismissed outright from the jury pool by U.S. District Judge George Wu.

Potential jurors came from as far away as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo and ranged in age from their early 20s to retirees.

Prosecutors said the case began in September 2006 when Drew grew to suspect Meier was gossiping online about her daughter, Sarah. The 49-year-old married mom, along with her daughter and a family friend, posed as a fictional 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans" on the social networking site MySpace to befriend Meier -- and seek revenge, prosecutors allege.

Meier, who was being treated for depression, hanged herself after "Josh" sent her a message that the world would be a better place without her, according to court filings.

Steward told the jury that Drew was not even home when that final hurtful message was sent.

Missouri prosecutors declined to bring a case against Drew, who is being tried in Los Angeles on a felony conspiracy charge and three counts of illegally accessing protected computers without authorization. The case was filed in Los Angeles because Fox Interactive, which owns MySpace, is based in Beverly Hills.

Drew is charged with conspiracy because others, who were not indicted, allegedly helped her with the ruse. The illegal access charge alleges she lied on the MySpace profile by violating MySpace's Terms of Service, which requires users to provide "truthful and accurate registration information."

Each of the four counts carries a maximum five-year jail term.

Wu said the case would likely go to the jury on Monday.


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