Friday, February 24, 2012

The Tyler Clementi Rutgers webcam cyberbullying trial begins

The trial of Dharun Ravi, indicted in a case of cyberbullying against a fellow Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, began on Friday. Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, just a few days after Ravi twice spied on his homosexual encounters using a webcam.

Ravi faces 15 counts, including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering. He could be sentenced to up to 10 years in state prison if convicted.

Ravi rejected a plea agreement in December that would have allowed him to serve no jail time, but require him to receive counseling and perform 600 hours of community service. The state also assured Ravi, who is an Indian citizen, that they would recommend to immigration officials that he not be deported.

The court of public opinion convicted Ravi after the incident, with gay rights groups and others chiming in. Former New Jersey prosecutor Robert Honecker said that proving a crime had been committed in the court of law will be more difficult. He said,

"Pressure from gay rights groups, and global media attention made this case one that had to be prosecuted. Yet the charges themselves are very difficult to prove."

John Fahy, another former New Jersey prosecutor familiar with the case said, "The fact that the prosecution offered this plea deal in the first place indicates that they are worried that they might have a tough time in court."

The bias intimidation charges may indeed be tough to prove. Those charges allege that Ravi's acts were intended to intimidate Clementi because of his sexual preference. The jury will be forced to determine Ravi's motives for his actions.

It has been alleged that Ravi used the program iChat to post the video on the Internet, and also Tweeted a message about the posting, although the Tweet was taken down. However, the Tweet was said to have read:

"Roommate (Tyler Clementi) asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's (Wei) room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Two days later, Ravi allegedly Tweeted the following, as he attempted to get a second encounter involving Clementi on video:

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again."

In her opening statements, Middlesex County Prosecutor Julie McClure said, "He's [Ravi] seeking to brand Tyler as different from everybody else, as gay, to set him up for contempt and ridicule. These acts were not a prank, not an accident, not a mistake, and certainly were not good natured... These acts were purposeful, intentional, planned. I would suggest to you beyond that they were mean spirited, malicious, and criminal."

Ravi's lawyer Steven Altman said, "You're going to see evidence that Dahrun is not homophobic, not anti-gay. Evidence that he never recorded, never broadcast images of his roommate. He never harassed his roommate, or ridiculed or spoke negatively about his roommate. He thought he was nice guy and had no problem with him."

The defense claims were bolstered on the first day of the trial, as the testimony of witnesses seemed to point to a lack of homophobia on Ravi's part. Austin Chung, a high school friend of Ravi's and the boyfriend of Molly Wei, the Rutgers freshman who was also implicated in the spying, testified that "He [Ravi] actually told me Tyler was a nice guy."

In addition, on the night of Clementi's death, Ravi text messaged Clementi with a long apology, saying, "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don't want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation."

The trial is expected to last about four weeks.

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