LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Missouri woman established a fake identity online to torment a vulnerable teenage girl who later committed suicide, federal prosecutors said on Wednesday in a trial that is being closely watched by the burgeoning social networking industry.
Prosecutors say Lori Drew, 49, posed as a teenage boy named Josh Evans on the social networking website MySpace.com and exchanged messages with 13-year-old Megan Meier. Drew's daughter and Meier had been friends but had a falling out, attorneys said.
U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien said Drew, her daughter and an employee of Drew's "hatched a plot to prey on the psyche" of a girl she knew was "vulnerable, suicidal and boy crazy."
"Her purpose was to tease Megan Meier, to tease her, to humiliate her and to hurt her," O'Brien said in Wednesday's opening statements. "One of her plans was to print out the conversations and take it to Megan's school and let people make fun of this depressed 13-year-old girl."
Drew, 49, is charged with conspiracy and accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information for the purpose of inflicting emotional distress on Megan Meier. The four charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Although Missouri authorities declined to charge Drew, federal prosecutors in California claimed jurisdiction because MySpace has operations in Los Angeles County.
In late 2006, Megan Meier's mother, Tina, found her daughter "sitting at the computer crying" after getting into an online dispute with "Josh Evans" and a couple of girls.
"She said, 'they're saying mean, horrible things about me,'" Tina Meier testified. "I told her to get off (MySpace)."
Less than an hour later, Tina Meier found her daughter, who struggled for years with depression and school bullying, hanging from a belt in her closet.
An attorney for Drew agreed with prosecutors that the case was "deeply tragic," but blamed the fight that may have driven Megan Meier to suicide on Ashley Grills, a then 18-year-old employee of Drew's who sent the final messages.
"This is a computer fraud and abuse case. This is not a homicide case," defense attorney H. Dean Steward told the six-woman, six-man jury in Los Angeles federal court. "The message that (prosecutors) talked about was sent when Lori Drew was on the road and not at home."
Steward said testimony from computer experts will show that "most of the messages that the government insists were sent are missing," and that the MySpace profile for Josh Evans was not set up on Drew's household computer.
Drew was not involved with plans hatched by her 13-year-old daughter and Grills to set up the fake profile and harass Meier, who was spreading "mean" rumors about Drew's daughter and others, Steward said.
Drew insisted her daughter and Grills shut down the profile when she learned that Meier was becoming romantically interested and hinting that she wanted to meet Josh Evans, the attorney said.
In a final message, Grills, posing as Josh Evans, told Megan: "The world would be a better place without you. Have a shitty rest of your life," O'Brien said.