A federal grand jury is reportedly investigating possible criminal charges in the suicide case of 13-year-old Megan Meier. At the same time, the state is considering a new law to criminalize the conduct that led to the girl’s suicide after a mother faked the identity of a young boy on MySpace and then cruelly dumped the teenager after she became infatuated with him. The mother and neighbor, Lori Drew, has not been called, but could be a target for criminal charges.
According to the LA Times, a federal grand jury has issued a subpoena to MySpace.com in the case. The most likely basis for the investigation is fraud where MySpace would be the victim rather than Megan. It could be a highly controversial charge. Putting aside the serious misconduct that led to this tragedy, criminalizing such false account would create some serious constitutional questions.
This case is centered on St. Charlies MO, where the parents of a girl were reportedly mad at 13-year-old Megan, who had broken up her friendship with their daughter. The parents (whose names have been withheld by the local newspaper) created a fake personality on MySpace in the form of a handsome 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. They nurtured the relationship so that Megan clearly developed a crush.
Her mother, Tina Meier recalls her daughter screaming “”Mom! Mom! Mom! Look at him! . . . look at him! He’s hot! Please, please, can I add him?” Her mother relented and agreed to add him to her MySpace list.
These neighbors developed an extensive false identity for Josh.
Megan became obsessed with Josh and communicated with him regularly.
Then on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006, she received terrible message from Josh that said that “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.”
The newspaper reported:
Frantic, Megan shot back: “What are you talking about?”
Tina Meier was wary of the cyber-world of MySpace and its 70 million users. People are not always who they say they are.
Tina knew firsthand. Megan and the girl down the block, the former friend, once had created a fake MySpace account, using the photo of a good-looking girl as a way to talk to boys online, Tina says. When Tina found out, she ended Megan’s access.
MySpace has rules. A lot of them. There are nine pages of terms and conditions. The long list of prohibited content includes sexual material. And users must be at least 14.
“Are you joking?” Tina asks. “There are fifth-grade girls who have MySpace accounts.”
As for sexual content, Tina says, most parents have no clue how much there is. And Megan wasn’t 14 when she opened her account. To join, you are asked your age but there is no check. The accounts are free.
As Megan’s 14th birthday approached, she pleaded for her mom to give her another chance on MySpace, and Tina relented.
She told Megan she would be all over this account, monitoring it. Megan didn’t always make good choices because of her ADD, Tina says. And this time, Megan’s page would be set to private and only Mom and Dad would have the password.
Monday, Oct. 16, 2006, was a rainy, bleak day. At school, Megan had handed out invitations to her upcoming birthday party and when she got home she asked her mother to log on to MySpace to see if Josh had responded.
Why did he suddenly think she was mean? Who had he been talking to?
Tina signed on. But she was in a hurry. She had to take her younger daughter, Allison, to the orthodontist.
Before Tina could get out the door it was clear Megan was upset. Josh still was sending troubling messages. And he apparently had shared some of Megan’s messages with others.
Tina recalled telling Megan to sign off.
“I will Mom,” Megan said. “Let me finish up.”
Tina was pressed for time. She had to go. But once at the orthodontist’s office she called Megan: Did you sign off?
“No, Mom. They are all being so mean to me.”
“You are not listening to me, Megan! Sign off, now!”
Fifteen minutes later, Megan called her mother. By now Megan was in tears.
“They are posting bulletins about me.” A bulletin is like a survey. “Megan Meier is a slut. Megan Meier is fat.”
Megan was sobbing hysterically. Tina was furious that she had not signed off.
Once Tina returned home she rushed into the basement where the computer was. Tina was shocked at the vulgar language her daughter was firing back at people.
“I am so aggravated at you for doing this!” she told Megan.
Megan ran from the computer and left, but not without first telling Tina, “You’re supposed to be my mom! You’re supposed to be on my side!”
On the stairway leading to her second-story bedroom, Megan ran into her father, Ron.
“I grabbed her as she tried to go by,” Ron says. “She told me that some kids were saying horrible stuff about her and she didn’t understand why. I told her it’s OK. I told her that they obviously don’t know her. And that it would be fine.”
Megan went to her room and Ron went downstairs to the kitchen, where he and Tina talked about what had happened, the MySpace account, and made dinner.
Twenty minutes later, Tina suddenly froze in mid-sentence.
“I had this God-awful feeling and I ran up into her room and she had hung herself in the closet.”
Megan Taylor Meier died the next day, three weeks before her 14th birthday.
Later that day, Ron opened his daughter’s MySpace account and viewed what he believes to be the final message Megan saw – one the FBI would be unable to retrieve from the hard drive.
It was from Josh and, according to Ron’s best recollection, it said, “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”
They later discovered that there was no Josh and the people responsible were not only adults but their neighbors — according to a neighbor.
The neighbor from down the street, a single mom with a daughter the same age as Megan, informed the Meiers that Josh Evans never existed.
She told the Meiers that Josh Evans was created by adults on their block. These adults, she told the Meiers, were the parents of Megan’s former girlfriend, the one with whom she had a falling out. These were the people who had asked the Meiers to store their foosball table.
It is not a crime to be monstrous and mean. However, Megan’s now divorced parents have declined to sue in torts for this alleged outrage. While it would be a difficult, it is not an impossible case. There can be novel claims of negligence in such a case. There is also intentional infliction of emotional distress claims that could be attempted as part of a wrongful death claim. (The parents themselves may even be able to claim intentional or negligent infliction given their close family relationship and proximity to the death — though this would also be novel).
The problem from the outset is that the tragedy was more of a civil than a criminal matter. One possible charge would involve a controversial new law barring internet abuse — a law that is ripe for challenge. One intriguing possibility is a new federal law prohibiting internet abuse. The new law (passed with little scrutiny in the last Congress) states:
“Whoever…utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet… without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person…who receives the communications…shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
It is a law that has some obvious flaws in poor drafting. A term like “annoy” is a red flag for constitutional challenge for vagueness. The case is worthy of national debate — and not just sensational coverage. The alleged destruction of the neighbor’s lawn by Mr. Meier seems to reflect a sense of no recourse for this horrific act. Here a girl is dead, neighbors are accused of terrible misconduct, and yet the legal system seems unable to address the loss. This does not appear to be a good criminal case, but a civil case can be brought — even if novel.
The use of fraud in the creation of a false account would likely be challenged on first amendment grounds as well as selective prosecution. Many of thousands of people used the anonymity of the Internet to create different identities and personalities. While Lori Drew is hardly the mother of the year, her conduct is not (regrettably) uncommon.
In the meantime, the Missouri legislature is considering a new law that would make types of harassment a felony, such as if anyone 21 or older harasses people 17 and younger. Once again the wording is key because such laws would run along the razor’s edge of the first amendment. Challenged on the first amendment, vagueness and other grounds would be possible.
For a prior column on the Meier case, click here
For the full story, click here