NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey (Reuters) - The case captured national attention over what seemed to be an obvious case of cyber-bullying. A former Rutgers University student used a webcam to spy on his roommate’s romantic tryst with another man in the days before the roommate’s suicide.
Now it comes to trial following an investigation that revealed much more nuance, challenging prosecutors to prove a hate crime under rarely tested circumstances.
Potential jurors were due to be interviewed on Wednesday in New Jersey’s Middlesex County Court in the trial of Dharun Ravi, 19, charged with invasion of privacy in the death of Tyler Clementi, 18, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010.
Ravi was quickly vilified by online commentators, at least in part as a result of early reports that incorrectly stated he had broadcast Clementi’s encounter on the Web, thereby “outing” him.
Garden State Equality was one of several gay rights organizations that praised the Middlesex County prosecutor’s decision to file charges against Ravi, calling Ravi’s actions “grotesque” and the “clearest-cut violation” of the law.
President Barack Obama and other public figures spoke of Clementi, a shy student with a talent for the violin, as yet another sad example of a young gay man bullied into taking his own life.
But as more details became public, the picture became muddier, and legal experts say prosecutors have a difficult case to prove.
Ravi has not been charged with causing Clementi’s death. Instead the main charge is invading Clementi’s privacy, which is unlikely to result in prison time for a first offender. For a hate crime conviction, which carries a sentence of up to 5 to 10 years, prosecutors must prove Ravi attempted to intimidate Clementi for being gay. Ravi also faces related charges of tampering with witnesses and evidence.
Ravi has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and has rejected a plea deal with prosecutors that could have helped him avoid a prison sentence. Instead he now risks up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
“Most hate crimes are committed against strangers, not against roommates or against good friends or neighbors,” Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, said in an interview.
Successful prosecutions typically rely on racial or homophobic slurs made as the crime is committed, graffiti left at the scene, the possession of hateful propaganda by the offender, or an offender’s previous history of hate crimes.
“In this case there apparently are none of those indicators to be found,” Levin said. “It doesn’t sound like a very strong case.”
On September 19, 2010, Clementi had arranged to have a man in his mid-20s identified in court only as M.B. to come over, and asked Ravi if he would leave the room. Ravi agreed. He went to the room of Molly Wei, a friend across the corridor, and used her computer to access his webcam through video-chatting software.
Wei later told investigators Ravi was alarmed at having to leave his room for a visit from an unknown older man and wanted to know what was going on. She said they saw images of Clementi kissing M.B., and, shocked, turned the video feed off within seconds. Ravi posted a message on his Twitter account:
“Turned on iChat and saw my roommate making out with a dude. Yay.”
To secure the bias intimidation conviction, prosecutors will need to convince a jury Ravi invaded Clementi’s privacy and that he did so to intimidate him because he was gay.
Ravi’s lawyers have pointed to transcripts of Ravi’s online conversations with friends showing that, after the gossip value of discovering his roommate’s sexuality has apparently faded, he concludes that Clementi being gay is “no big deal”.
Ravi’s lawyers have said in court documents there is no evidence Clementi was intimidated by Ravi’s actions. He was open about his sexuality with friends and had come out to his parents, according to Clementi’s chat transcripts.
After learning from Ravi’s Twitter post he had been seen on the webcam, Clementi said in an online chat with a friend he felt “violated” at first, but soon after joked about the incident, saying he found it “sooo funny,” and laughed when the friend suggested it could be considered a hate crime.
Nonetheless, he filed a formal request to switch roommates and posted his concerns on an Internet forum for gay men, which prosecutors are likely to point to as evidence he felt intimidated.
Even after realizing his encounter with M.B. had been briefly viewed by Ravi, Clementi invited M.B. back to his room two days later and again asked Ravi to excuse himself, although this time he was careful to make sure Ravi’s computer was unplugged.
Editing by Daniel Trotta