Rutgers spycam case heads to jury, hinges on 'bias intimidation'

The spycam case drew national attention because of the intersection of alleged discrimination against gays and the intrusion of social media. Dharun Ravi faces 15 criminal charges.

By , Staff writer

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    Dharun Ravi listens to testimony during his trial at the Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J., Monday. Ravi is accused of using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, who committed suicide just days after the alleged spying.
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Attorneys made closing arguments Tuesday in the trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of cyber intimidation by using a webcam and other social media to expose his male roommate's intimate encounter with another man.
 
The gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide by jumping off New York City's George Washington Bridge days after learning that information about his relationship had been made public.

Dharun Ravi, the defendant, stands accused of engaging "bias intimidation" against Mr. Clementi because of his sexual orientation. That's the most serious of 15 criminal charges against Mr. Ravi, which could result in as much as 10 years in prison.

The New Jersey case has drawn nationwide attention because it reflects the intersection of two prominent social issues: concerns about the challenges faced by young gay Americans and the ubiquity of social media in daily life.
 
Mr. Ravi set up his computer to monitor activities in the room he shared with Clementi, and communicated about his roommate's sexual orientation via text messages with friends and public posts on the Twitter social network.
 
"His intent was purposeful and ... it was targeted at Tyler," prosecuting attorney Julia McClure said in her sum-up argument. "And it was targeted at Tyler because of his sexual orientation."

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The question now is whether the jury will agree on those points, all critical to proving "bias intimidation" beyond reasonable doubt.

Ravi's defense counsel said no evidence showed the defendant to feel hatred toward his roommate or gays in general.
 
Ms. McClure told jurors that no other motive could explain Ravi's actions, and that the actions spoke louder than any words could have. "He didn't have to announce it to anyone," she said. "You can decide ... if his actions prove that motivation."
 
The presentations to jurors were lengthy, including a roughly hour-long video of Ravi being interrogated after Clementi's disappearance in September 2010. The judge in the case still needs to present instructions to jurors on the laws they must consider.
 
After that, sometime Wednesday morning, jurors will begin deliberations on a verdict.

Defense attorney Steven Altman said that Ravi's use of the webcam was motivated by concern about his own possessions, such as an iPad tablet computer, and about what was going on his room when Clementi asked to use the space privately with a friend.
 
Mr. Altman emphasized that Ravi never recorded provocative video or posted it online, and that when Ravi and a friend saw (via the webcam) intimate behavior, they turned off the video stream within seconds.

Altman also said the prosecution had failed to turn up witnesses saying, for instance, that Ravi had made antigay remarks.
 
McClure said Ravi made a point of spreading word, via Twitter and in-person conversation, about his roommate's sexual orientation and encounters with a male friend.

The prosecutor sought to cast doubt on a central claim made by Ravi in the taped police interview: that he had shut down his computer prior to second time Clementi asked for privacy in the room. Citing computer evidence and testimony from Ravi's friends on campus, McClure suggested that Ravi had every intent of allowing others to connect to the webcam's video feed to watch Clementi with his friend, identified in the trial as "M.B." A Twitter post by Ravi dared friends to watch the webcam at that time.
 
It was Clementi, McClure said, who shut down Ravi's computer (rendering the webcam unviewable) during that visit from M.B., and then turned it on again before Clementi returned to the room.

Ravi himself was practicing with his Ultimate Frisbee team that night while Clementi met with M.B.
 
Later, Ravi deleted two Twitter messages important to the case. The prosecution says those and other actions by Ravi sought to interfere with police investigation of Clementi's death. The jury could find Ravi guilty of those offenses even if he is cleared of bias intimidation.

In one Twitter message, after Clementi's first meeting with M.B., Ravi said "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." 

The prosecution showed evidence that Clementi monitored Ravi's Twitter account, seeing that message and the one in which Ravi dared friends to watch his webcam feed on the night of Clementi's second meeting with M.B.

Before his suicide, Clementi applied to the university for a change of dorm rooms, and expressed concern about Ravi's behavior to a resident adviser.

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