LOS ANGELES -- Jury selection began Tuesday in the nation's first criminal cyber-bullying case, as 75 Southlanders marched into a Los Angeles federal courtroom to hear charges read against a woman accused of actions that caused a teenager to take her own life.
Attorneys said the process of finding a 12-person panel for the trial of Lori Drew would probably take the better part of the day.
The potential jurors were given over an hour to complete a questionnaire -- standard practice in high-profile cases -- to determine how much they may already know about the case, their reaction to that knowledge, and if they or any family members had ever been a victim of cyber-bullying or identity theft.
Some of the potential panelists, who ranged in age from their early 20s to retirees, appeared to show recognition of the Drew case as the indictment was read to them by a court clerk. Perhaps some of them saw a recent episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which was inspired by the Drew case -- believed to be the first instance of alleged cyber-bullying to result in a criminal proceeding in the United States.
The case dates back two years, when 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself at home in the leafy suburban neighborhood of Dardenne Prairie, Mo. Investigators quickly learned she'd been taunted online by Drew, the mother of a teenage rival and onetime pal of Meier's who lived four doors away, court papers allege.
Prosecutors say that after Drew began suspecting that the girl was gossiping about her daughter online, the 49-year-old married mom posed as a 16- year-old boy named "Josh Evans" on the social networking site MySpace to befriend the 13-year-old old -- and seek revenge.
The messages were flirtatious at first -- one called the girl "sexi" -- then hurtful, according to court papers. Meier, who was being treated for depression, hanged herself after "Josh" sent her a message that the world would be a better place without her.
Potential jurors listened intently as the four-count indictment was read to them, while Drew's husband took notes in the back of the packed courtroom and the defendant herself sat quietly next to her attorney at the defense table.
Prosecutors in Missouri had declined to prosecute Drew, saying no state laws were broken. Missouri legislators subsequently 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, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles charged Drew 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 indicted, allegedly helped her with the ruse. The illegal access charge alleges she lied on the MySpace profile by violating MySpace's Terms of Service, which requires users to provide "truthful and accurate registration information."
Each of the four counts carries a maximum five-year jail term.
Drew's San Clemente-based attorney, Dean Steward, will apparently try to persuade the jury that cyber-bullying is not a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is ordinarily used to prosecute hackers and those committing high-tech crimes.
Prosecutors counter that the law is fluid enough to cover Drew's actions.
The three-member 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.
Witnesses at the trial are expected to include Ashley Grills, who has admitted she was part of the scheme to create the fake MySpace persona. Grills, 19, has been granted immunity in exchange for her testimony against Drew, prosecutors said.
Other witnesses will include the dead teen's mother and fellow classmates, psychiatrists and computer experts.
Attorneys estimate the trial will take about a week. If a jury is impaneled Tuesday, opening statement are expected Wednesday.
The issue of whether the suicide evidence would be allowed during the trial consumed many pretrial hearings in the weeks prior to jury selection.
U.S. District Judge George H. Wu eventually decided to allow the testimony, saying the evidence was crucial to one of the four felonies with which Drew is charged -- the allegation that she joined in the conspiracy with the intent to inflict emotional distress.
"Showing that this victim took the ultimate step of taking her own life shows the level of her distress," said co-prosecutor Mark Krause.
Wu also acknowledged it would be nearly impossible to find a jury panel whose members did not already know of the much-publicized case.
"I don't think there's any real dispute that evidence of the suicide is not relevant," Wu said previously. "The question is if the evidence is unfairly prejudicial."
Steward argued that if the jury heard that his client had something to do with the suicide of a 13-year-old girl, "they're going to convict my client, me, and anyone sitting near me."
"The jury is going to end up thinking that Lori Drew is being tried for the death of Megan Meier," he said Monday.
But Wu said he would fashion an introduction to the case for the jury that will make it perfectly clear that Drew has not been charged in Meier's death.
Still, among the 17 questions potential jurors were asked to answer Tuesday were three that deal directly with suicide, including: "Can you put aside any sympathy, pity or sadness you may feel as a result of this evidence, and fairly and objectively evaluate it, along with the other evidence in this case?"