In the 17 months since Tyler Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge on a September night, his roommate, Dharun Ravi, has been the focus of an emotional national debate on bullying and cybercrime.
That debate now moves to Room 202 of the Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, where a jury will decide whether Ravi committed a hate crime or merely pulled a teenage prank when he allegedly used a laptop camera to spy on Clementi and another man in their Rutgers University dorm room.
The trial begins Tuesday with jury selection and may last four weeks. It will be televised on truTV — formerly Court TV — and is expected to draw a packed house of journalists and observers from across the country. But the case has also drawn wide attention from the legal community because it raises questions about what the penalty should be for such an offense. Some lawyers believe that the prosecution may be overreaching by bringing criminal charges against Ravi. Others say the case could break important new ground in how the courts handle hate crimes.
Prosecutors say Ravi’s actions show he targeted Clementi for being gay, and he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the top bias counts.
Ravi vigorously denies the allegations, and the judge will instruct the jury that the charges against the defendant are in no way linked to Clementi’s suicide. What may bolster the defense’s case are several messages that Clementi exchanged with friends, in which the teen indicated he never felt threatened or intimidated.
“Usually this kind of charge is associated with an assault or murder or some kind of violence where it’s much more clear that you’re trying to hurt somebody, physically,” said Susan Abraham, a New York Law School professor and a former New Jersey public defender. “I think that’s part of the controversy. Maybe a hate crime isn’t appropriate, maybe it’s more anti-bullying.”
But, she added, “I don’t see why psychological and emotional violence shouldn’t be treated the same as physical violence. What the state is saying is: This was an invasion of privacy with the purpose to intimidate as a result of bias. That’s the whole question. Was it because of his bias against Tyler Clementi’s sexual preference that he spied, or was it just: He’s mad at his roommate and that was a way he knew he could embarrass him?”
ELECTRONIC PAPER TRAIL
The case against Ravi includes hundreds of pages of e-mails, text messages and Tweets the roommates exchanged with their friends in the weeks after they learned they would be sharing a room in Davidson Hall.
In one such message, Clementi wrote to a friend after finding out about the webcam from Ravi’s Twitter feed. Clementi told her, “When I first read the tweet, I felt violated.” But he added he no longer felt violated and was even amused by the episode. That exchange occurred just days before he committed suicide.
Ravi, 19, of Plainsboro, is charged with spying on Clementi on Sept. 19, 2010, and trying to do the same again on Sept. 21. In that incident, he allegedly sent an invitation for others to watch after Clementi asked for use of the room. Clementi got wind of that attempt and disconnected the plug connecting Ravi’s computer, according to messages Clementi later sent to friends. In both incidents, Clementi had the same man over to his room. That man, referred to only as M.B., is also a victim in the case, and may testify at trial.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has fought to keep M.B.’s identity secret, saying that his homosexuality is not known. The man, in his mid-20s, is terrified that he will be “outed” during the legal proceedings, prosecutors have said.
THE OTHER VICTIM
Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman ruled that the defense must have M.B.’s full name but cannot share the information. Because the state has charged Ravi with invasion of privacy as a sex crime, Berman has ordered that if M.B. testifies at trial, he will only be identified in court by his initials, and that the media cannot take photos or video of him.
While evidence has emerged about the strained relationship Clementi had with his parents after he told them about his sexuality, prosecutors say there is just as much information that Clementi was wounded by Ravi’s actions.
“We live in a culture that’s very judgmental and people are biased in one way or another, but they’re not committing crimes that are based on that bias,” said Louis Raveson, a professor at the Rutgers-Newark School of Law.
Raveson said the bias charge is a difficult one to prove, but not impossible. “When kids are dealing with their own sexuality and being gay, that’s an incredibly fragile time for them. When you take advantage of that and humiliate somebody purposely, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, gee, what an extreme reaction, that was a harmless prank.’ Well, the jury could easily find that wasn’t a harmless prank because the defendant knew or should have known there could have been disastrous consequences.”
BACK ON CAMPUS
On Rutgers’ Busch campus in Piscataway, more than a dozen students interviewed were divided on the topic. Some, like Calvin Kwon, a senior, described it as a prank that went horribly wrong.
“It’s definitely terrible what’s happened,” said Kwon, 21. “It shows how a joke can be taken too far. Little things that might not mean much to one person can mean a lot to someone else.”
Others were less sympathetic, believing Ravi deserves jail time for invading Clementi’s privacy. “Obviously, he’s got a problem with Tyler being gay,” said Keith Everitt, 33, a sophomore majoring in computer engineering. “So he was trying to forcibly out him or pick on him.”
Ravi was not the only person charged in the case. Fellow Rutgers student Molly Wei of West Windsor was initially charged with invasion of privacy but was never indicted. According to a statement Wei gave investigators, Ravi went to her dorm room — which was across the hall from his — and turned on the camera for about five seconds that day in September. As soon as they saw Clementi and the man kissing, Ravi turned it off, Wei said. In a statement to police, she said that after Ravi left her room, she turned it back on to show some of her girlfriends, but Ravi turned it off again when he returned. Wei was allowed to enter a pre-trial probationary program in return for her agreement to testify against Ravi. Neither Wei nor her family has spoken publicly. Ravi and Wei withdrew from Rutgers University several weeks after they were charged.
For the trial, 2,000 jury notices were sent out in early January, and more than 200 potential jurors showed up Friday to fill out questionnaires. That document is 17 pages long and asks 47 questions, many of them particular to this case. Among them are questions about college dorm life, experience with social media, along with feelings toward homosexuals and possible “negative experiences with someone of Indian descent.” Ravi, who grew up in the United States, was born in India.
Some potential jurors will be immediately excused, and the remaining ones will return for questioning Tuesday. Berman will likely impanel 14 jurors for the trial, with opening statements starting as early as Wednesday.
In recent months, Clementi’s parents have begun to speak publicly. They created a foundation in their son’s name that focuses on preventing teen suicide and anti-bullying initiatives, and in the lead-up to the trial, have given a series of interviews to media outlets.
Joseph and Jane Clementi, who learned their son was gay just weeks before his death, have discussed their pain — Tyler was the second of three sons — and the tension that arose from his decision to reveal his homosexuality.
In an interview with People magazine, Jane Clementi called “especially devastating” one message Tyler sent a friend that read in part: “Mom has basically rejected me.”
The parents oppose Ravi serving any prison time, saying in an October statement that “legal accountability does not necessarily require the imposition of a harsh penalty in this case.” Tyler’s older brother, James — who told his parents that he was gay only after the suicide — has also given several interviews.
Ravi’s family has remained silent since his arrest.
In court appearances, Ravi, who is thin with curly dark hair, has said little except to answer direct questions from the judge. With no prior criminal record, he turned down an offer from the prosecutor’s office in December that involved pleading guilty to some of the bias intimidation and privacy charges in exchange for probation. It included an offer to help Ravi — who is not a U.S. citizen — if immigration authorities moved to deport him to India.
Ravi’s attorney, Steven Altman, said his client rejected the plea deal because, “He’s innocent. He’s not guilty.”
The case, said Susan Abraham, highlights the criminal justice system’s uncertainty when dealing with “this kind of emotional bullying. Should it be treated in the criminal courts or some other way? Maybe we need clearer guidelines. Maybe this case will start the conversation about thinking a few steps ahead, about what’s okay and what’s not okay,” she said. “The problem with criminalizing these (online) postings and the things young people do on the internet is a lot of them don’t know what the rules are. Maybe they should.”