Despite the architectural gravitas of its setting — downtown's WPA Federal Courthouse — and the presence at the prosecution table of the formidable U.S. Attorney Tom O'Brien, the Lori Drew MySpace trial never felt like it should have been a federal case. After listening to testimony from and about suburban teenage girls calling one another “bitches,” “lesbians” and “ugly,” spectators soon began to believe this was a matter that belonged in civil court, if not on some reality TV show fueled by cat fights between overweight girls. If anything, the Drew trial represented a pop culture reversal — instead of a family feud being magnified to Sophoclean proportions on the set of Judge Judy, the federal legal system was reduced to the size of a small claims court.
Sarah and Lori Drew photo by Ted Soqui
Of course, it was the death of a girl that made this possible. The case involved Drew, 49, her now-15-year-old daughter, Sarah, and another teenager, Ashley Grills, who were
accused of conspiring to fraudulently set up a MySpace account to
“torment, harass, humiliate, and embarrass” 13-year-old Megan Meier,
whom Sarah believed was a school rival. Megan ultimately was driven to suicide after the hoax site's nominal owner, the fictitious hunk “Josh Evans,” befriended and then unceremoniously dumped Megan, a fragile girl with a long history of clinical depression.
From the start the case seemed almost as suspect as Josh Evans' existence. The crime had been committed in Missouri, where the principals lived, but wound up being tried in a major media market because MySpace is headquartered in Beverly Hills. The Internet-delivered message that pushed Megan Meier over the edge (“The world would be a better place without you”) was not sent via MySpace, but through AOL Instant Messaging. And it wasn't sent by Lori Drew, but by Ms. Grills, who'd been granted immunity for testifying for the government.
The allegations themselves weren't the kind normally associated with Big Crime. Drew was charged with one count of conspiring to fraudulently access a computer (a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) and three overt acts of using the Josh Evans account to torment Megan. Still, each count carried a hefty five-year prison term and, paradoxically, the very severity of Drew's potential sentence probably drove jurors to acquit her of three of the overt-act felonies and deadlock on the felony conspiracy charge. Instead, she walked away, that rainy day last week, with three misdemeanor convictions. Lori and Sarah Drew had barely popped open their umbrellas outside the courthouse when Jeffrey Toobin was on the radio declaring Lori wouldn't serve a day of the potential three years she was now looking at.
Jack Lerner, an assistant professor specializing in intellectual property and Internet law at USC, understood the jury's reluctance to throw the book at Drew.
“When you have allegations this appalling,” he says, “it's not surprising.”
Lerner feels the government had to “shoehorn” the charges into the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in order to present them.
“This was a very novel prosecution and it left some people scratching their heads,” he says. “This is a statute designed to punish people who break into secure systems.”
Hackers, in other words, and not MySpace Invaders who, like Lori Drew, were charged with violating MySpace's terms of service — basically, by not reading them. As reprehensible as Drew's behavior was, her acquittal of the case's most serious charges, and the jury's deadlocking on the conspiracy count, may or may not deter the government from using the computer-fraud act as a weapon against anyone who hits the I Accept button on a Web site without reading the site's terms of service.
“There is still the danger,” Lerner says, “that this act, which is designed to prevent people from breaking into secure systems to steal data, could now be used to go after people who engage in objectionable conduct online. Today this case involves some pretty awful acts but tomorrow it could be something relatively minor that a prosecutor doesn't like.”