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UPDATE: Jury selection begins in Internet suicide case

Tuesday, November 18, 2008 | 7:42 p.m. CST; updated 9:24 p.m. CST, Tuesday, November 18, 2008

LOS ANGELES — Jury selection began Tuesday in the case against a Missouri mother accused of taking part in a MySpace hoax that allegedly led to a 13-year-old girl's suicide.

A pool of about 75 jurors began fielding questions from prosecutors and a defense attorney representing 49-year-old Lori Drew.

Opening statements could be staged as soon as Wednesday.

Drew is accused of helping create a false-identity account on the social networking site and harassing her young neighbor, Megan Meier, with cruel messages.

Meier hanged herself in 2006 after allegedly receiving messages saying the world would be better off without her.

Drew has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing computers without authorization. Each count carries a potential sentence of five years in prison.

Defense attorney Dean Steward questioned whether his client could receive a fair trial after reviewing the questionnaires filled out by prospective jurors. He estimated 80 percent of them had heard about the case and half had formed "devastating" opinions about Drew.

Steward said he was concerned about six people who did not look favorably upon Drew, who sat silent in court wearing a white, button-down sweater and matching olive green blouse and pants.

"These are the ones that drip with the most venom for my client," Steward told U.S. District Judge George Wu. The judge dismissed at least two of those people from the pool.

Steward asked Wu to reconsider his previous ruling that will allow evidence of the suicide in the trial. Wu indicated he would be against it, saying it was apparent most people likely have heard about the case.

Steward has said he is concerned information about the suicide would be prejudicial.

Wu has said he would instruct the jurors that the case is about whether Drew violated the terms of service of the MySpace social networking site, not about whether she caused Megan's suicide.

"There is no way to get around it," Wu said. "I just have to instruct."

The government is prosecuting Drew under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which has never before been used in connection with a Web site's terms of service barring misrepresentation by users setting up new accounts.

Prosecutors argue the statute can be used against cyberbullying, but Steward believes there was a simple breach of contract and not a federal crime. Steward sought to have the indictment filed against his client dismissed before trial.

Megan's death was investigated by Missouri authorities, but no state charges were filed because no laws appeared to apply to the case. Missouri recently updated its laws against harassment to include cyberbullying. The case is being prosecuted in Los Angeles because MySpace computer servers are based in the area.

It's the first time the federal statute on accessing protected computers has been used in a social-networking case.

 

 


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