LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A suburban mother who prosecutors say drove a love-struck 13-year-old girl to suicide by tormenting her with a fake MySpace persona was acquitted on Wednesday of the most serious charges against her.
Lori Drew was found guilty of three misdemeanor counts in the high-profile case, which made worldwide headlines and prompted calls for social networking sites like MySpace to crack down on such activities.
She was cleared of three felonies by the U.S. District Court jury, which deadlocked on a fourth count of conspiracy.
Drew, who created the fake profile after her daughter and neighbor Megan Meier had a falling out, showed no reaction as the verdicts were read and declined to answer questions from reporters as she left the courtroom.
The Missouri woman will face a sentence ranging from probation to three years behind bars for the misdemeanor convictions. She could have been sent to federal prison for up to 20 years if she had been convicted on the felony charges.
Prosecutors say Drew and others created the fake MySpace persona of a 16-year-old boy to woo Meier for several weeks, then abruptly ended the relationship and said the world would be better off without her.
Meier hanged herself in October 2006, just hours after she had read those final messages.
Prosecutors claimed that Drew, her daughter and a teenage employee created the profile to embarrass Meier publicly and get back at her for saying bad things about Drew’s daughter.
Juror Shirley Hanley told Reuters outside of court she and her fellow panelists cleared Drew of the more serious charges because they could not be sure who typed the MySpace messages that so upset Megan.
Hanley, 59, said the teen’s death made the case an emotional one, adding that during deliberations, “You fan your eyes to try to keep tears from falling.”
“This is about justice,” Tina Meier, Megan’s mother, said after the verdict. “It’s justice not only for Megan but it’s justice for everybody who has had to go through this with the computer and being harassed.”
Experts have said the indictment, which was handed down in Los Angeles after Missouri authorities declined to prosecute Drew, was a first of its kind and was an awkward fit for the federal statute on which it was based.
“I’m not surprised at all at the verdict. It’s what prosecutors commonly call a compromise verdict,” University of Southern California law professor and former federal prosecutor Rebecca Lonergan said.
“The thing about this case that really bothered members of the public is the teenager’s suicide, and the involvement of a grown woman in (allegedly) causing that suicide,” she said. “And the main problem is that the charges weren’t about the suicide. They were about computer hacking, essentially.”
Lonergan said she had already heard from members of Congress who wanted to write new laws that specifically address cyber-bullying and harassment.
A spokesman for MySpace said the site did not tolerate cyber-bullying and had cooperated with prosecutors.
“MySpace respects the jury’s decision and will continue to work with industry experts to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and the harm it can potentially cause,” MySpace Chief Security Officer Hemanshu Nigam said in a statement.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Peter Cooney