When federal prosecutors in Los Angeles indicted a Missouri mother last year for committing an Internet hoax that apparently led to the suicide of a 13-year-old girl, they touted the novel legal approach that allowed them to file the case halfway across the country. On Monday, a U.S. district judge indicated they may have gone too far.
"Using this particular statute in this particular situation is so weird," Judge George H. Wu said, calling some of the prosecution's argument "troublesome."
Wu's comments came Monday afternoon at a hearing in which Lori Drew, 50, was to have been sentenced. Wu delayed the sentencing until July, saying he wanted to consider a defense motion to dismiss the entire case.
A federal jury convicted Drew in November of three misdemeanor computer crimes but deadlocked on a felony conspiracy charge that would have carried a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. The verdict was a blow to prosecutors who indicted Drew on what some called tenuous legal grounds after authorities in Missouri declined to file criminal charges.
Drew was widely criticized after the 2006 death of eighth-grader Megan Meier, a friend of Drew's daughter. Prosecutors said Drew, her daughter and her 18-year-old employee used a fake profile of a teenage boy to flirt with Megan online via Beverly Hills-based MySpace. Megan hanged herself with a belt after getting a message, purportedly from the boy, telling her that "the world would be a better place without you."
At Monday's hearing, Wu grilled Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark Krause at length about whether the government had prosecuted Drew under the appropriate laws when they accused her of unauthorized access in violation of MySpace's "terms of service."
"Is a misdemeanor committed by the conduct which is done every single day by millions and millions of people?" Wu asked. "If these people do read [the "terms of service"] and still say they're 40 when they are 45, is that a misdemeanor?"
Krause argued that Drew's acts were criminal because she signed up for the fake account with the intention of harming Megan by humiliating her. Drew knew her acts were illegal and deleted the account shortly after Megan's death to cover up her crime, he contended.
Prosecutors had asked Wu to impose a sentence of three years. Defense attorneys argued for probation and vehemently criticized the prosecution in court filings, calling its argument "utterly absurd." Megan's parents, Ron and Tina Meier, made statements in court Monday describing their daughter as a loving but vulnerable girl who went fishing with her father and cared deeply for her friends. They asked Wu to impose the maximum prison sentence.
"It just sickens me that it was an adult playing with the mind of a 13-year-old child," said Ron Meier.