On February 24th, the trial of 20 year old Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi began in Middlesex County, New Jersey. Ravi has been charged with 15 counts of invasion of privacy, evidence and witness tampering, and the most serious charge of bias intimidation as a hate crime. Ravi is accused of having set up a webcam in the dorm room he shared with his then roommate Tyler Clementi on September 19, 2010 in order to record Clementi’s intimate sexual encounter with another man. Ravi also posted on Twitter that he observed his roommate “making out with a dude.”
Three days after Ravi recorded and viewed the encounter, Clementi, 18, committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. The case is being followed nationally, and raises many issues prevalently in the news, including privacy in the age of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, and cyber bullying resulting in teen suicide. The evidence and witness tampering charges arise out of several text messages sent by Ravi to witness Michelle Wei when she was being questioned by prosecutors. She testified that Ravi wanted to know what she was telling them, and stated: “Did you tell them we did it on purpose? What did you tell them when they asked why we turned it on? Ravi wanted Wei to give investigators the impression that the videotaping was “more of an accident.”
On the bias intimidation charge, if found guilty, Ravi could be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail. Additionally, as Ravi was born in India and is not a U.S. citizen, he faces potential deportation (now officially called “removal”) from the United States if convicted of the most serious criminal charges.
Prosecutors contend that Ravi’s actions were “meant to cross one of the most sacred boundaries of human privacy—engaging in private sexual human activity…and were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation.” In contrast, the defense denied that there was any element of intimidation in Ravi’s actions, and claimed that Ravi did not dislike gay people. The defense argued that Ravi made a “stupid mistake”, and “did not intend to intimidate anyone.”
Generally, New Jersey’s 10 year old bias intimidation statute has been utilized when there has been an assault or other physical intimidation, rather than in invasion of privacy cases. But in recent years, there have been reported cases of online intimidation leading to tragic instances of suicide and serious mental distress. In order to prevail on the most serious charge of bias intimidation, the prosecution will have to show that Clementi reasonably believed that he was singled out for his sexual orientation, and was intimidated by Ravi’s actions. Thus, the state of mind of both Clementi, as victim, as well as Ravi, as alleged perpetrator, will be critical in deciding the outcome.
Prosecutors called Molly Wei to the stand as one of their first witnesses. Ms Wei was initially charged with invasion of privacy for watching the furtive video as well, but in a plea deal with prosecutors, the charges against her were dropped in exchange for her testimony against Ravi and the requirement to perform 300 hours of community service. Wei testified that she observed Clementi kissing another man for a few seconds. She alleged that although Ravi knew his roommate was gay, but did not consider this to be an issue. Similarly, other witnesses offered by the prosecution denied that Ravi had a problem with homosexuals, and one witness claimed that the only comment that Ravi made about the encounter he witnessed is that the male guest of Clementi “looked shady.”
In an important victory for the defense, they were able to prevent the jury from hearing that Mr. Clementi had requested a room change from the Rutgers administration due to “roommate with webcam spying on me.” The jury was only advised that Clementi did make the room change request, but not the reason. Although there has been a presumption that Clementi committed suicide due to his exposure in the webcam video, his motivation for killing himself has never been publicized.
We will monitor developments in this potentially groundbreaking trial.