Jury to rule: Was hate motive of NJ webcam spying?Joel Reidenberg in The Associated Press, February 23, 2012
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — It's not just what a former Rutgers University student did or didn't do that's at issue in his trial on charges he used a webcam to spy on his roommate's liaison with another man, just days before the roommate killed himself.
It's also what he was thinking.
Jury selection was completed Thursday and opening arguments are expected Friday in Dharun Ravi's hate crime trial, which could answer at least some of the questions about the circumstances of a death that sparked a national conversation about bullying on young gays and the emerging issue of cyberbullying.
The case gained widespread attention in September 2010 when Ravi's roommate, Tyler Clementi, killed himself days after the intimate encounter. Experts following the case say that like many criminal cases, it seems more complicated than it did at first.
"One of the reasons the politicians jumped in so quickly is that there is a growing national concern over cyberbullying and harassment," said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at New York's Fordham University who studies online law. "This appeared on first blush to be a very crystalizing example. It became an opportunity for statements about the problem."
But, he said, New Jersey's invasion of privacy laws don't closely match what Ravi is accused of doing. And, he said, the legally important idea that he acted out of bias toward gays is not a slam dunk for prosecutors given the shards of evidence that have been made public so far.
During the month leading up to Clementi's suicide, a number of other young gays who experienced bullying killed themselves. But it was the story of the 18-year-old Rutgers freshman that became a symbol of the problem, sparking the reaction of such leaders and celebrities as President Barack Obama and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
Reidenberg said that the issue of gay bullying needs to be addressed but that using this case as a prime example is a problem. "It can be really harmful to the cause," he said, "hanging so much on the Clementi case for cyberbullying and cyber harassment."
Ravi, now 19, isn't charged in connection with Clementi's death. He is charged with invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension and tampering with a witness and evidence. The most serious charges are two counts of bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. To convict him on those counts, prosecutors will have to persuade a jury that Ravi sought to intimidate Clementi because he was gay.
"The question really before this jury really is whether this is a college prank that went horribly wrong or really a hate crime where the victim was targeted because of his sexual orientation," said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal defense lawyer.
Court filings and interviews show that Clementi, a violinist from the New York City suburb of Ridgewood, told family members he was gay in the months before he moved into his dorm room at Rutgers' Davidson Hall in Piscataway — and that Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player and computer whiz from central New Jersey's Plainsboro, found out from searching for information about his future roommate online.
Text and chat messages between each roommate and other friends show that the two were apprehensive of each other in those early weeks at Rutgers. They didn't talk much, though they talked to friends about each other. Clementi said Ravi changed his clothes in an alcove out of his roommate's view.
On Sept. 19, 2010, Clementi asked to have the room to himself for a few hours so he could have company, authorities said. Ravi, authorities say, accessed the webcam on the computer that he'd left in their shared room from the room of a friend across the hall. Ravi wrote on later Twitter, "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
All the evidence presented so far in court documents suggests that Ravi and a handful of other students viewed no more than seconds of the encounter and saw nothing more graphic than kissing. One other student, Molly Wei, was charged with invasion of privacy. She entered a pretrial intervention program last year that will allow her to avoid a criminal record if she complies with a list of conditions. She's agreed to cooperate with the prosecution of Ravi.
Ravi, too, was offered a plea deal, but he rejected it. And his reason for that was simple, said his lawyer, Steven Altman. "He's innocent. He's not guilty," he has said.
Two days after the students saw parts of the first encounter, authorities said, Ravi set up his webcam to capture a second encounter between Clementi and other man, who so far has been identified in court papers by the initials M.B. Ravi is accused of using Twitter to tell others how they could also watch. But that liaison was not webcast.
And a day after that, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, leaving a last Facebook posting: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
The suicide was crushing for the people who cared for Clementi — and for many others who found compassion for him because of his plight.
It was especially painful for Clementi's older brother, James. James Clementi said that he and his brother came out to each other as gay in the summer before Tyler started at Rutgers. They'd grown closer over the summer, but they weren't in touch once Tyler started school, James told The Associated Press in an interview. James said that was because he wanted to give his brother room to settle into his new independent life. "I imagined that the experience he was having at college was a really positive one — a really fun experience," James Clementi said.
James Clementi wrote a piece about Tyler this year for Out magazine, where he has been working. He said he wants to do what he can to discourage suicide.
"I wanted to reiterate that I know my brother is not an isolated case," he told the AP. "There are a lot of children that struggled with sexual identity problems and ended their life because of it. There are still people taking their lives."
Bill Dobbs, a gay rights activist from New York, came to a day of jury selection holding a sign that reads, "Justice not vengeance," part of his warning about treating Ravi's legal case as a symbol of broader wrongs confronted by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
"My fear is that Tyler Clementi is a stand-in for everybody who's ever been bullied or found little elbow room because they're gay," Dobbs said. "Attitudes about GLBT people have to change, but they don't change from throwing the book in criminal court, and they don't change because a law passes in Trenton. Attitudes change when we confront prejudice and bigotry."