LOS ANGELES -- Three days after the airing of a "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit" that had a similar plotline, a Los Angeles judge ruled that evidence of a girl's suicide can be used against a woman charged in an Internet hoax.
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu said Friday that a Los Angeles jury will hear testimony about the suicide of a 13-year-old girl during the upcoming trial of a Missouri woman accused of using a fictitious MySpace profile to torment the teen into taking her life.
The issue of whether the suicide evidence would be allowed during the nation's first case of alleged cyber-bullying was hotly contested by both the defense and prosecutors.
Wu said he would allow the testimony because the evidence was crucial to one of the four felonies with which Lori Drew is charged -- intentional infliction of emotional distress.
On Friday, Wu indicated just how prevalent the Drew story is by asking attorneys if they happened to catch Tuesday's episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit," which the judge said "had a similarity to a case we're involved in."
Wu also acknowledged that it would be almost impossible to find a jury panel whose members did not already know of the much-publicized Drew case.
"I don't think there's any real dispute that evidence of the suicide is not relevant," Wu said. "The question is if the evidence is unfairly prejudicial."
Dean Steward, Drew's lawyer, argued that if the jury heard that his client had something to do with the suicide of a teenage girl, "they're going to end up convicting Lori Drew, me, and anyone sitting hear me."
Prosecutors say Drew, of Fallon, Mo., posed as a teenage boy on the social networking site MySpace in 2006 to befriend Megan Meier, a rival of her daughter's who hanged herself after the "boy" said the world would be a better place without her. The Meier family lived four doors down from the Drews.
The case is believed to be the first instance of alleged cyber-bullying to result in a criminal proceeding in the United States.
Jury selection in the trial of Drew, 49, on federal charges of conspiracy and illegally accessing computers is set to begin Tuesday. Drew has pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution team includes Thomas O'Brien, the U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California, who is making a rare return visit to the courtroom.
Although the Drew case shocked the nation when the news broke two years ago, local prosecutors in Missouri declined to prosecute, saying no state laws were broken. Missouri later enacted a law making stalking and harassment on the Internet punishable by a sentence of up to four years in prison.
When Missouri authorities took no action against Drew, federal prosecutors charged her with felony conspiracy and three counts of illegally accessing protected computers without authorization. The charges were filed in Los Angeles, because Fox Interactive, which owns MySpace, is based in Beverly Hills.
Drew is charged with conspiracy because others, who were not charged, allegedly helped her with the ruse. The illegal access charge alleges she lied on the MySpace profile. Each of the four counts carries a maximum five-year jail term.
Steward has argued that cyber-bullying is not a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is typically used to prosecute hackers and those committing high-tech crimes.
Prosecutors have countered that the law is fluid enough to cover Drew's actions.
Drew is accused of helping to create a fake profile page for "Josh Evans" -- a fictional 16-year-old boy -- on MySpace. Drew and others then began contacting Meier, a former friend of Drew's daughter.
The messages were flirtatious at first, then hurtful, according to court papers. The teen, who had been treated for depression, hanged herself in October 2006, after "Josh Evans" sent her a message that the world would be a better place without her.
Drew is accused of accessing a protected computer without authorization by violating MySpace's Terms of Service, which requires users to provide "truthful and accurate registration information."
The witness list includes the dead teen's mother and fellow classmates and MySpace staffers.
Attorneys estimate the trial will last about a week.