Indictment in MySpace teen suicide case

Via AP:

LOS ANGELES – A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted a Missouri woman for her alleged role in perpetrating a hoax on the online social network MySpace against a 13-year-old neighbor who committed suicide.

Lori Drew of suburban St. Louis allegedly helped create a false-identity MySpace account to contact Megan Meier, who thought she was chatting with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Josh didn’t exist.

Megan hanged herself at home in October 2006 after receiving cruel messages, including one stating the world would be better off without her.

Salvador Hernandez, assistant agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, called the case heart-rending.

“The Internet is a world unto itself. People must know how far they can go before they must stop. They exploited a young girl’s weaknesses,” Hernandez said. “Whether the defendant could have foreseen the results, she’s responsible for her actions.”

She’s denied sending messages

Drew was charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization to get information used to inflict emotional distress on the girl.

Drew has denied creating the account or sending messages to Megan.

U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien said this was the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case. It has been used in the past to address hacking.

I wrote about this heartbreaking case in detail last November, but didn’t focus on the issue of whether or not any legal charges should be brought against the mom, primarily because I wasn’t sure if there was any legal recourse for the family of the teen who committed suicide.

It’ll be interesting to see how this case plays out. On one hand, people need to know and understand that their deliberately hurtful words and/or actions can have serious, sometimes deadly consequences, especially if we’re talking about an adult’s playing around with a child or young teen’s mind. On the other hand, just how responsible can the justice system hold one person criminally culpable (to a certain extent) for the suicide of another? Consider the fact that many teens commit suicide because they can’t handle the intense pressure of trying to “fit in” in school – they may get teased and verbally tormented on a daily basis, and decide one day they’ve had enough. Should the teasers be held responsible in a court of law?

Morally, in the eyes of most people Lori Drew is guilty of being a Grade A witch. But is she legally guilty of anything? I don’t have the answers from a legal standpoint. Legal eagle Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy takes a look at the case, finds it weak, and believes it should be dismissed:

This case involves a terrible tragedy; I think what Lori Drew did is truly despicable. But the government’s legal theory, based entirely on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, 18 U.S.C. 1030, is very weak. Legally speaking, the prosecution is a real stretch. In my view, the courts should dismiss the indictment. In this post, I’ll explain why.

To understand this case, you need to understand the government’s theory. The indictment is not charging Drew with harassment. Nor are they charging her with homicide. Rather, the government’s theory in this case is that Drew criminally trespassed onto MySpace’s server by using MySpace in a way that violated MySpace’s Terms of Service (TOS).

Here’s the idea. The TOS required Drew to provide accurate registration information, not to harass or harm other people, and not to promote conduct that was abusive. She didn’t comply with these terms, the theory goes, so she was criminally trespassing onto MySpace’s computer when she was logging into her account. The indictment turns this into a federal felony conspiracy charge by arguing that she did this in concert with others to obtain information and to further tortious conduct β€” intentional infliction of emotional distress β€” violating the felony provisions of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2).

But these arguments are a real stretch for three reasons.

Make sure to read his post in full.

Daniel J. Solove at the Concurring Opinions legal blog weighs in as well.

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