Megan Meier MySpace Suicide

CNN Headlines / 1-09-08

CHUCK ROBERTS: A Los Angeles grand jury is reportedly investigating the on-line hoax that led to a Missouri’s teenager suicide in October of 2006. The L.A. Times reports the grand jury’s already issued subpoenas. Thirteen-year old Megan Meier died October 2006. She was distraught after she was rejected by a 16-year old boy she had met through her MySpace website but the boy was actually the mother – a neighbor mother – of the girl’s former friend using a false on-line identity. Missouri prosecutors declined to file charges against the woman but now the feds are involved. The L.A. Times reports grand jurors are investigating whether she should be charged with committing fraud against MySpace which is based in Beverly Hills. Former federal prosecutor Kendall Coffey joins us live in Miami. Kendall, have you ever heard anything like this – goading someone into suicide and going after the goater as it were?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, in the computer age we are seeing a whole new age of computer crimes. And this is the kind of thing that wasn’t prosecutable under traditional state law theories. That’s why the Missouri DA took a pass on things like child endangerment and stalking. But, there’s some new things getting on the books now Chuck that could penalize what was absolutely appalling conduct – an adult perpetrated a heartless hoax that resulted in the tragic death of a 13-year old child. They’re taking a hard look and I suspect they are going to find something now that they can prosecute here.

CHUCK ROBERTS: Are they going after possible fraud against MySpace?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, they’re starting with that because that’s the most traditional way to look at it. Wire fraud, the family in Missouri apparently set up a false account with MySpace. But that’s not where it is going to end. There was enacted in 2006 a new federal law that makes anonymous cyber-abuse a crime potentially prosecutable for two years, hasn’t been tested by the courts yet, but if you ever wanted to see a case where that kind of law ought to be applied, this might be the case. 

CHUCK ROBERTS: What about free speech? I’m not making any excuses. I’m just saying theoretically.

KENDALL COFFEY: No, that’s a huge issue but it has come up before in the context of a very similar law that dealt with anonymous phone calls that were used to harass, to intimidate, to threaten. Those laws were largely validated. Again, it’s unclear here. But if you take words like abuse, if you take words like harass, if you take words like threat, I mean, if you look at what was done to this little girl, I think the court is going to find that the first amendment doesn’t protect that kind of conduct.

CHUCK ROBERTS: Would the jurisdiction be California where MySpace is based or Missouri where the crime allegedly occurred?

KENDALL COFFEY: I think in a lot of these cases it could occur in either place. I think the L.A. grand jury and the L.A. U.S. Attorney’s Office is starting out with it because they have more traditional theories — wire fraud, computer fraud — and don’t have to necessarily rely on this untested theory of anonymous cyber-abuse, but don’t be surprised if they don’t bring a number of charges if, in fact, they find the evidence supports it. 

CHUCK ROBERTS: Is fraud the low end? I got just ten seconds.

KENDALL COFFEY: Ironically, that’s the easy one. Anonymous cyber-abuse more complicated. 

CHUCK ROBERTS: Kendall Coffey always great to have you with us. We learn a lot every time.