LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Missouri woman who prosecutors say drove a 13-year-old neighbour girl to suicide with a cruel MySpace hoax pleaded innocent to federal charges on Thursday in the unprecedented case.
Lori Drew, who is accused of creating the fake MySpace persona of a 16-year-old boy to woo and then viciously reject neighbour Megan Meier, pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and accessing a protected computer to obtain information.
She was ordered to stand trial on July 26 in the case, which legal experts say stretches the bounds of the federal statute on which it is based, a law typically used to prosecute defendants who hack into government computers.
A federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted Drew in May after authorities in Missouri, where she lived four doors away from Meier in the St. Louis suburb of O'Fallon, declined to prosecute her, saying there was no law under which she could be charged.
She faces 20 years in prison if convicted.
Drew, who travelled to Los Angeles for her initial court appearance in the case, did not address the court during the brief arraignment hearing. She stood quietly next to her attorney as he entered the not guilty pleas.
Prosecutors say Drew, mother of a teenage girl who had a falling out with Meier, and several others created a profile for the fictional 16-year-old boy, "Josh Evans," using the picture of an unwitting teenage boy.
They contacted Meier through MySpace as "Josh" and spent several weeks flirting with her before ending the relationship on October 15, 2006, and saying the world would be better off without her, according to the indictment.
Several hours after the final message, Meier, who had argued with her mother over the relationship, hanged herself in the closet of her bedroom -- still unaware that "Josh" did not exist.
Meier's suicide made worldwide headlines and prompted calls for social networking sites like MySpace to crack down on cyber-bullying.
The indictment charges that after Meier killed herself, Drew had the phony MySpace account deleted and warned a girl who knew about it that she should "keep her mouth shut."
After the incident became widely known, the Drew family was shunned by members of the community and targeted for abuse on the Internet, and their small advertising business was vandalized.
(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)