Los Angeles — Evidence from the suicide of a Missouri girl can be used by prosecutors against a woman charged with helping to create a false Internet identity that was used to harass the teenager, a federal judge ruled Friday.
The ruling came just days before the start of the potentially groundbreaking trial of Lori Drew, 49, of O'Fallon, Mo., who has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and accessing computers without authorization. Prosecutors said Drew helped create the MySpace account and harassed Megan Meier, her daughter's former friend.
Prosecutors say Meier, 13, who was being treated for depression, hanged herself after receiving messages saying the world would be better off without her.
Drew's lawyer had argued the suicide evidence would lead jurors to focus on the death, rather than whether Drew violated the terms of service of MySpace.
U.S. District Judge George Wu previously indicated he might bar any mention of suicide because it could be prejudicial, but he changed his mind after hearing lawyers' arguments.
Wu said he was now convinced that many prospective jurors would be aware of the suicide from reading news reports or seeing a recent episode of the TV show "Law and Order" that involved a similar scenario.
He said he would instruct jurors, possibly at the outset of the trial, that the case was not about the suicide and that Drew is not charged with causing the suicide.
Jury selection in the trial, being held in Los Angeles because MySpace's servers are based in the area, is set to begin Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Krause argued during the hearing Friday that Drew is charged with joining in a conspiracy to cause intentional infliction of emotional distress.
"Showing that this victim took the ultimate step of taking her own life shows the level of her distress," Krause said.
Drew's attorney, Dean Steward, protested.
"The jury is going to end up thinking that Lori Drew is being tried for the death of Megan Meier," he said.
Rather than making a reasoned decision, he said, "this jury is just going to decide this by sympathy."
Krause previewed the government case in court documents filed this week, portraying Drew as a scheming conspirator who enlisted her own daughter and an 18-year-old assistant to taunt Megan and entice her into an Internet romance with a boy who did not exist.
Krause said in the documents that Drew enjoyed describing the scheme to friends and even told her hairdresser about it, saying that Megan "may have had the hots for the fake guy."
The assistant, Ashley Grills, who is to testify for the prosecution, warned "they would get in trouble if the scheme was uncovered," according to the memorandum.
"However, defendant assured Grills that they would not and, in any event, many people created fake identities on the Internet," Krause wrote.
The prosecutor maintained that Drew was aware of Megan's vulnerabilities, knew she was on medication for depression and had even administered the medications when Megan was visiting Drew's daughter. He said Megan's mother confided in Drew that she was worried about her daughter's mental health.
When she learned of the suicide, Drew told her "co-schemers" to delete the MySpace account, Krause wrote. He also said she called another girl who had become part of the MySpace conversation and told her to "keep her mouth shut" and to "stay off the MySpace."
Experts have said the case could break new ground in Internet law. The statute used to indict Drew usually applies to Internet hackers who illegally access accounts to get information. It has not been used to prosecute someone for sending messages.
Drew's attorney has argued that cyber-bullying is not a violation of the statute, known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien has acknowledged it's the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case.