A US judge today overruled a jury verdict and dismissed a case against a Missouri woman convicted last November in a cyberbullying case that led to a teenager's death.
US District Court Judge George Wu granted a defence motion for a directed acquittal of Lori Drew, 50, who was convicted last November on three misdemeanour counts of unauthorised computer access. After reviewing transcripts of the case, Wu overturned the jury's verdict, saying that if Drew were found guilty then anyone who violated MySpace's terms of service could also be found guilty of a misdemeanor.
Prosecutors had argued during the trial that violating the terms of service of the social-networking site in order to harm someone else was the legal equivalent of hacking a computer.
A jury in the US District Court for the Central District of California last November convicted Drew on charges related to taking on a false MySpace identity and taunting a 13-year-old neighbour, Megan Meier, who ultimately hanged herself. Wu was scheduled to sentence Drew on Friday.
Drew was convicted on three counts of illegally accessing a computer system by creating a MySpace account under an assumed name. The jury acquitted her on felony charges and a count of conspiracy.
She was accused of setting up a MySpace account along with two other people using the name of "Josh Evans", who was supposedly a teenage boy, for the purpose of luring Meier into an online relationship in 2006. Drew and the others sought to get Meier to discuss Drew's daughter online with the fictitious boy. After a month of flirting, "Josh" ended the relationship on October 16, 2006, with Meier, and one of the three who created the persona told the teenager that the world would be better off without her. Meier hanged herself the next day in her family's home in a St Louis suburb. The Drews lived on the same block.
Prosecutors in Missouri investigated the matter, but found that Drew had not violated any state laws. However, the case was pursued by the US attorney's office in Los Angeles, which indicted Drew for accessing MySpace servers illegally. MySpace is based in Beverly Hills, California, so the case was heard there.
The case has drawn a lot of attention, as well as criticism from groups and legal scholars who contended that the government was misinterpreting the US antihacking law to prosecute Drew.
Nonprofit organisations including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, along with some individuals, in August filed an amicus brief arguing that the court should dismiss charges against Drew because the MySpace terms-of-service violations do not constitute crimes under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which bars unauthorised access to a computer.
"Regardless of whether Drew could be held criminally liable under a different theory, EFF argued that the theory pursued by prosecutors was inappropriate," wrote EFF senior staff attorney Matt Zimmerman in a blog entry.