"Shame on the U.S. Attorney for filing these charges! Shame on Tom O'Brien and the U.S.Attorney's office!" So spoke attorney Dean Steward on the steps of the Federal Courthouse Thursday following Judge George Wu's reversal of three misdemeanor convictions faced by his client, Lori Drew.
Drew, 50, is the suburban Missouri woman accused of creating a fake MySpace account to taunt a 13-year-old girl who had a falling out with Drew's daughter, Sarah. The girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide in 2006, seemingly as a result of those taunts. Drew was not charged with culpability in Meier's death, but with conspiracy to harass Meier by committing cyber-fraud -- charges filed by Thomas O'Brien, the U.S. Attorney for California's Central District, because MySpace's servers are located in Beverly Hills.
Last November, a jury acquitted Drew of the more serious charges facing her, while deadlocking on a single conspiracy felony that the prosecution eventually withdrew. Jurors did, however, convict Drew on three misdemeanor counts for violating MySpace's terms of service by creating a fictitious account. Days before that verdict, attorney Steward had filed a motion to dismiss the entire case on grounds that prosecutors had not proven their charges. For a day or so it seemed as though Judge Wu was giving serious consideration to Steward's motion and might be on the verge of a quick decision that would end the trial before it even reached the jury. Little did court spectators realize, at the time, that Wu was incapable of such decisiveness.
Instead, the motion (and Drew's sentence) remained under consideration by Wu for seven months, creating an excruciatingly long trial epilogue revolving around three minor counts that even a federal probation office recommended should not result in jail time.
Last Thursday began unpromisingly enough.
"I have certain questions before I rule," Wu announced. It was a familiar preamble and shortly afterward one journalist passed a note to a colleague reading, "See you in August." Yet Wu surprised everyone by tossing out the misdemeanor convictions before noon - reasoning that the Internet statutes were too broad and could theoretically make criminals of anyone who commits an infraction of a Web site's terms of service. (Drew was tried under laws normally applied to computer hackers.)
Even here, though, Wu announced his decision was "tentative" and that he would not truly make up his mind until whenever he got around to writing his decision. He had barely added that caveat, however, when Megan's mother, Tina Meier, rose and stalked out of the courtroom. A furious-looking figure dressed in black, Meier left her estranged husband, Ron, sitting alone to hear the rest of Wu's peroration.
"I was done listening to what he had to say," Tina Meier later said at news conference held upstairs in the courthouse. "I'm extremely upset with the decision the judge made," she said. "It could have been made earlier without dragging this out."
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Shortly before Tina and Ron Meier addressed reporters, U.S. Attorney O'Brien had been asked to respond to Steward's condemnation made on the courthouse steps outside, but he refused to get drawn in to an exchange about it. O'Brien had weathered criticism throughout the trial for even indicting Drew. At the news conference he and co-prosecutor Mark Krause announced they will hold off deciding on whether to appeal Judge Wu's ruling - or to refile the conspiracy charge -- pending his written opinion.
"I felt strongly about the charges," O'Brien told reporters. "I personally believed they warranted considerable prison time. What we have at the end of the story is the tragic death of a 13-year-old little girl." There was a pause that lasted a little too long, and when reporters looked up from their notepads they saw O'Brien, a solid but graceful-looking man, choking on his emotions.
"This is a case that cried out for someone to do something about it."
In the months that follow Wu's decision, there doubtlessly will be debate about whether Lori Drew's actions cried out for a federal prosecution.