A housewife who created a phoney MySpace account to send hostile emails to a neighbour's 13-year-old daughter appeared in court yesterday charged with "cyber-bullying" that prompted the girl's suicide.
Lori Drew is accused of posing as a fictitious 16-year-old boy called "Josh Evans" in a plot to befriend and later send taunting messages to Megan Meier, a vulnerable girl with a history of depression who was being bullied at school. Ms Drew set out to "tease, embarrass, humiliate, make fun of and hurt" the "suicidal and boy-crazy" girl, said prosecutors, using the social networking site to tell Megan that "the world would be a better place" without her.
Megan replied, telling "Evans" that he was "the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over", then hanged herself with a belt, in an upstairs room of her family home in the small town of O'Fallon, Missouri, the jury heard.
In a landmark case, the first "cyber-bullying" prosecution in the US, Ms Drew, 49, faces one count of conspiracy and three counts of computer fraud, which each carry a maximum of five years in prison.
She sat expressionless in court on Wednesday as Megan's mother, Tina, recalled how her daughter, who was taking medication for attention deficit disorder, had apparently been befriended by a boy online in September 2006.
A month later, during a visit with her younger daughter to the orthodontist, Tina Meier told the jury how she had called home to see how Megan was doing, and discovered her in tears, because "Josh" and two other girls were "saying mean things about her".
Later that day, Mrs Meier asked Megan to show her the messages, and then scolded her for being online without a parent present. "The last words she said to me were, 'You are supposed to be my mom; you are supposed to be on my side'," she said.
Soon afterwards, Mrs Meier heard a commotion upstairs and discovered Megan had hanged herself in a wardrobe. She screamed for her husband, who used a knife to cut his daughter down. But it was too late: Megan died in hospital the following day.
Ms Drew, who lived nearby, has been accused of using a fake MySpace account to find out whether Megan had been spreading false rumours about her daughter, Sarah, who attended the same school.
Another witness, Susan Prouty, who manages an interior design shop and did business with Ms Drew's magazine coupon firm, testified that the defendant had told of her plan to print out a thread of flirtatious messages to take to Megan's school.
Ms Drew said the idea was to "humiliate her", claimed Ms Prouty. She justified the plot on the basis that, "As a mother, you have to protect your daughter".
The case revolves around charges that Ms Drew lied on the fake MySpace profile, violating the site's terms of service which require users to provide "truthful and accurate" registration information. The case is being heard at a federal court in Los Angeles because Fox Interactive, the owner of MySpace is based in nearby Beverly Hills.
Ms Drew's attorney, H Dean Steward, fought unsuccessfully to have the charges thrown out before trial, arguing that people routinely create fake identities on the internet without fear of prosecution. He also tried, and failed, to ban prosecutors from mentioning Megan's death on grounds that it might prejudice the jury.
Much of the trial will revolve around technical aspects of social networking. Ms Drew claims she was not at home when the fateful, final message was sent, and – while she admits to knowing about the Myspace account – blames her daughter Sarah, and several friends, for sending the hostile messages.
"There are two sides to every story," said Mr Steward, who asked jurors not to let emotions cloud their judgement, and to remember that, "this is a computer abuse and fraud case, not a homicide case".
The trial continues.
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