- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

LOS ANGELES | A Missouri mother on trial in a landmark online bullying case was convicted Wednesday of only three minor offenses for her role in a mean-spirited Internet hoax that apparently drove a 13-year-old girl to suicide.

The federal jury could not reach a verdict on a conspiracy charge against Lori Drew, 49, and rejected three other felony counts of accessing computers without authorization to inflict emotional harm.

Instead, the panel found Mrs. Drew guilty of three misdemeanor offenses of accessing computers without authorization. Each count is punishable by up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Mrs. Drew could have gotten 20 years if convicted of the four original charges.

U.S. District Judge George Wu declared a mistrial on the conspiracy count. There was no word on whether prosecutors would retry her.

“I don’t have any satisfaction in the jury’s decision,” said Mrs. Drew’s lawyer, Dean Steward. “I don’t think these charges should have ever been brought.”

Tina Meier, the mother of the dead girl, said Mrs. Drew deserves the maximum of three years behind bars. “It’s not about vengeance, it’s about justice,” she said.

Prosecutors said Mrs. Drew and two others created a fictitious 16-year-old boy on MySpace and sent flirtatious messages from him to teenage neighbor Megan Meier. The “boy” then dumped Megan in 2006, saying, “The world would be a better place without you.” Megan promptly hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet.

Prosecutors said Mrs. Drew wanted to humiliate Megan for saying mean things about Mrs. Drew’s teenage daughter. They said Mrs. Drew knew Megan suffered from depression and was emotionally fragile.

“Lori Drew decided to humiliate a child,” U.S. Attorney Thomas O’Brien, chief federal prosecutor in Los Angeles, told the jury during closing arguments. “The only way she could harm this pretty little girl was with a computer. She chose to use a computer to hurt a little girl, and for four weeks she enjoyed it.”

Mr. O’Brien, who pronounced the case the nation’s first cyberbullying trial, said the jury’s decision sent a worthy message: “If you have children who are on the Internet and you are not watching what they are doing, you better be.”

Most members of the six-man, six-woman jury left court without speaking to reporters. One juror, who identified himself by his first name only, Marcilo, indicated jurors were not convinced Drew’s actions involved the intent purported by prosecutors.

The case hinged on an unprecedented - and, some legal experts say, questionable - application of computer-fraud law.

Mrs. Drew was not directly charged with causing Megan’s death. Instead, prosecutors indicted her under the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which in the past has been used in hacking and trademark theft cases.

After Megan’s suicide, Missouri passed a law against harassment online. Similar federal legislation has been proposed on Capitol Hill.

The trial’s outcome was a victory for prosecutors despite the lack of a felony conviction, said Nick Akerman, a New York lawyer who specializes in cases involving the federal computer act.

“What you learned is that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is an extremely important tool in the federal arsenal against computer crime,” he said.

*AP writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this report.

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