Cyber-bullying conviction could be tossed

A federal judge on July 2 tentatively threw out the convictions of a Missouri mother for her role in a MySpace hoax directed at a 13-year-old neighbor girl who ended up committing suicide. The case had raised national awareness about the dangers of cyber bullying.

U.S. District Judge George Wu said he was acquitting Lori Drew of misdemeanor counts of accessing computers without authorization, but Wu stressed the ruling was tentative until he issues it in writing. He noted the case of a judge who changed his mind after ruling.

Drew was convicted in November (see “See “Cyber bullying case nets mixed verdict”), but the judge said that if she is to be found guilty of illegally accessing computers, anyone who has ever violated the social networking site’s terms of service also would be guilty of a misdemeanor. That would be unconstitutional, he said.

“You could prosecute pretty much anyone who violated terms of service,” he said.

Prosecutors had sought the maximum three-year prison sentence and a $300,000 fine, but it had been uncertain going into the July 2 hearing whether Drew would be sentenced.

Wu had given a lengthy review to a defense request for dismissal, delaying sentencing from May to go over testimony from two prosecution witnesses.

Wu said he allowed the case to proceed to trial when Drew was charged with a felony, but she was convicted only of the misdemeanor–and that presented constitutional problems.

Drew’s attorney, Dean Steward, said outside court that the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles should not have brought the charges in a case that originated in Missouri and was rejected by prosecutors there.

“Shame on the U.S. attorney for bringing this case. The St. Louis prosecutors had it right,” Steward said. “The cynic in me says that [U.S. Attorney] Tom O’Brien wanted to make a name for himself or to keep his job.”

O’Brien told a press conference that after prosecutors see the written ruling they will consider options, including an appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’m proud of this case,” he said. “This is a case that called out for someone to do something. It was a risk. But this office will always take risks on behalf of children.”

The parents of Megan Meier, the teenager who killed herself, were in court for the ruling. Later, her mother, Tina Meier, said that in spite of the disappointment, she felt that justice was done, because “we got the word out” about the serious consequences of cyber bullying.

Tina Meier said she is devoting her life to educating parents and teachers about cyber bullying. (See “Cyber bullying: From victim to crusader.”)

Much attention has been paid to Drew’s case, primarily because it was the nation’s first cyber-bullying trial. The trial was held in Los Angeles because the servers of the social networking site MySpace are in the area.

Prosecutors say Drew sought to humiliate Megan by helping create a fictitious teen boy on MySpace and sending flirtatious messages to the girl in his name. The fake boy then dumped Megan in a message saying the world would be better without her.

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