A federal judge in Los Angeles tentatively decided Thursday to reverse a jury's verdicts and acquit a Missouri woman who had been convicted of computer fraud charges stemming from an Internet hoax that prompted a teenage girl to commit suicide.
Lori Drew, 50, was convicted in November of three misdemeanor counts of illegally accessing a protected computer. The charges stemmed from the "cyberbullying" death of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who committed suicide after being "dumped" on MySpace by a fictitious boy Drew helped create.
"I wouldn't want to be in Lori Drew's shoes and live her life," said Tina Meier, Megan's mother, after the hearing. "I'm extremely upset at the decision."
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu said prosecutors' use of a federal anti-computer hacking statute against Drew was selective and "unconstitutionally vague." His decision will not become final until he issues a written ruling, which could come as early as next week.
Despite the ruling, U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien said he stands by the decision to prosecute the case.
"I'm proud of this case that sought justice for a 13-year-old little girl," O'Brien said outside court.
"It was a risk," he said. "This particular law has not been applied in this way before. We call it cyberbullying, but we don't have a law to address it."
Drew was not charged with causing Meier's death. Instead, prosecutors indicted her under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is usually used in hacking and trademark theft cases. In convicting Drew, jurors rejected felony charges that she used a computer to intentionally inflict emotional harm to the girl.
Dean Steward, Drew's attorney, argued throughout the case that the law should never have been used against his client.
Wu apparently agreed, saying Thursday that if Drew is guilty of illegally accessing computers, anyone who has ever violated the social networking site's terms of service agreement would be equally guilty of a misdemeanor.
"Who decides what is a violation of terms of service -- the government or MySpace?" Wu asked prosecutors. "You could prosecute pretty much anyone who violated terms of service."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause told Wu the question raised "an irrelevant fact."
Drew, who was joined in court by her father, had no comment after the hearing.
But her attorney characterized Wu's preliminary decision as "not the end of the road."
"It's the end of the chapter on the criminal side, which is pretty clearly the end," Steward said.
A federal jury convicted Drew of the three misdemeanor charges but deadlocked on a felony conspiracy charge that would have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors today requested that Wu dismiss the deadlocked count, leaving the possibility that Drew could be retried on that charge in the future.
O'Brien said he would wait for Wu's final order before deciding whether to appeal the acquittal to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals within 30 days of the ruling. He also left open the possibility of refiling the conspiracy count at some point.
Drew was charged after the 2006 suicide of Meier, an on-and-off pal of the woman's daughter. At the time, the family lived four doors down the street from the Meiers in Dardenne Prairie, Mo.
The girl, who was being treated for depression, hanged herself at home after reading a MySpace posting from "Josh Evans," a fake persona invented by Drew and two unindicted co-conspirators. The message told the girl the world would be better off without her, according to prosecutors.
Drew's attorney said at trial that Drew never knew the teen had a history of depression. But Tina Meier testified that she had discussed her daughter's depression with Drew before the suicide. Drew did not testify.
The mother said Thursday she had not decided whether to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Drew.
"Nothing we ever do will bring Megan back," Tina Meier said.
Although the charged actions in the case took place in Missouri, the trial was set in Los Angeles because MySpace's servers are located in Beverly Hills.