Judge Tosses MySpace Suicide Conviction

     (CN) – In tossing the conviction of a Missouri mother accused of causing a neighbor girl’s suicide through a MySpace page, a federal judge in Los Angeles said the prosecution’s theory would allow criminal prosecution of anyone who violates the MySpace terms of use, thus turning a boiler-plate contract that is rarely read into criminal law.

     That argument was precisely the point hammered home by the defense lawyer for the Missouri woman, Lori Drew. In his final argument to the jury in the case, lawyer Dean Steward said, ”You could prosecute pretty much anyone who violated terms of service.”
     Steward reminded the jury that the statute under which Drew was being prosecuted requires a conscious decision to violate terms of access. “How can you violate something when you don’t even know what it is? That’s it, we’re done. End of case.”
      The Drew case provided a sad and somewhat sordid look into a St. Louis suburb and a long-time friendship between two young girls who both struggled with their weight and vied for social acceptance. The girl who later took her life, Megan Meier, was thought to have insulted Sarah Drew, the daughter of Lori Drew, calling her overweight and a lesbian.
     In retaliation, according to trial testimony, a crew of Sarah Drew, an older friend of the family, Ashley Grills, and to a limited extent the mother Lori Drew participated in the creation of a 16-year-old “skate” kid named Josh Evans. The boy’s persona was crafted to appeal to a disaffected 13-year-old girl, with the boy saying that he felt like he did not fit in.
      When the boy dumped Megan online, she went upstairs and hung herself with a belt.
      The U.S. Attorney for Los Angeles, Tom O’Brien, personally prosecuted the case. In his closing argument to the jury, he pointed to the cleverness of the defendant and her helpers in knowing that Megan Meiers was overweight and concerned about it.
     Writing as Josh Evans, they said weight did not matter to him. O’Brien told the jurors, “Josh Evans liked her just the way she was. She not knowing that she was dealing with the cold manipulation of conspirators.”
      He pointed dramatically to the defendant, “There’s Josh Evans.”
      “It’s a tragedy,” O’Brien told the jury. “And what you have to determine is that it is a crime.”
      The defense lawyer had argued to the judge that the girl’s death was irrelevant to the elements of the crime charged, which was basically an anti-hacking statute, and that it would prejudice the jury. The judge however let it in.
      In his statement to the jury, Steward argued that the victim had long struggled with depression, was taking pills that could trigger depression, was often online with her mother at her shoulder, and was herself in violation of the terms of use for MySpace because she was too young.
     The defense lawyer had the unenviable task to attacking the victim, pointing out, carefully, that she no Internet angel.
     Megan had once posed on MySpace as an 18-year-old, sending sexually suggestive messages, said the defense lawyer, and she had at other times insulted Drew’s 13-year-old daughter as fat and as a lesbian, while engaging in “mutual combat” by means of Internet insults.
      Shifting blame towards Megan’s mother, Tina Meiers, the defense lawyer noted that she was well aware of the Josh Evans persona and had in fact complained to local police about email messages from him — where he asked, for example, if Megan wanted to touch his “pet snake.”
      “Wouldn’t a reasonable person at that point just shut it down,” Steward asked the jury. But Tina Meiers nevertheless allowed her daughter to continue the Internet correspondence, with a tragic result.
     The jury refused to convict Drew on a felony charge but did convict her on lesser misdemeanor charges. In comments afterwards, the jurors focused on the family nature of the case.
      After the verdict, a juror who wanted to give only her first name, Shirley, said Drew was not the mastermind of the deception. “It was mostly Ashley, and a little bit Sarah. They wanted to find out what was going on.”
      “Kids can be cruel,” Shirley added. “Teenage girls get into fights. They had gotten into spats before.”
      In dismissing the case on Thursday, Judge George Wu said it is unconstitutional for the government to say that anyone who ever violated the terms on a social networking site is thus guilty of a misdemeanor. He said his decision was tentative. But it would be extraordinary for him to reverse himself before he writes his ruling, promised for next week.

juror comments, final arguments, daughter testimony, cross of victim’s mother, editorial based on a family dinner discussion about the case, the conclusion of which reads as follows:

     My family estimated that thousands and probably millions of people were saying something false on MySpace and other social networking sites, either because they had used a false name, entered a false birth date, were too young, or in some way had fudged information about themselves.
     The guilty verdict on misdemeanor counts for unauthorized access of a computer to gain information, I told the family, was based on the prosecution argument that any violation of the MySpace terms of use constitutes “unauthorized access.” The terms of use run for seven, single-typed pages and include the creation of a fake account.
     All one need do is then send an email from that account “seeking information.”
     Voila! You have a federal crime.
     The effect of the conviction is to give social networking sites the power to define violations of federal law through their terms of use, I argued. And that cann

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