Rutgers spycam case: why it's not open and shut
Dharun Ravi faces charges of, among other counts, invasion of privacy and witness and evidence tampering. The most serious charge – bias intimidation – could draw a 10-year sentence.
Jury selection continued Wednesday in the highly charged webcam spying case of a former Rutgers University student accused of cyberbullying his gay roommate, who days later leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.Skip to next paragraph
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Dharun Ravi has not been charged in the 2010 death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi. But he faces 15 counts of invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering, hindering prosecution, and the most serious charge – bias intimidation, a hate crime that could draw a 10-year sentence.
Mr. Ravi is alleged to have used a friend's computer to view an intimate encounter between Mr. Clementi and another man in the dorm room Clementi and Ravi shared. Ravi is also alleged to have invited friends to watch streaming video of another encounter a day later. The second viewing never took place and the invitation has been described by defense lawyers as just a joke.
As the digital trail of tweets, texts, and Web chats has been unearthed and parsed by defense lawyers and prosecutors since Clementi's death, what appeared at first to be an open-and-shut case has turned out to be anything but, legal experts say.
Prosecutors will rely on a mountain of electronic data to prove their case – but it is the interpretation of what was communicated digitally that will determine the outcome.
And proving bias intimidation may be even harder for the prosecution.
"A jury has to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of intimidating someone because of their sexual orientation," says Chris Adams, a Roseland, N.J., criminal defense attorney. "But that may be difficult given some of Clementi's comments in which he didn't seem to care that he had been seen – and still other comments by Ravi that indicate he really didn't care that his roommate was gay. That could create a lot of uncertainty for jurors."
Clementi and Ravi were both freshmen and knew each other only for about three weeks before the cascading series of events – mostly played out on social media with curiously few face-to-face exchanges – inextricably linked the two young men.
Clementi requested a new roommate on Sept. 21, 2010, the day after he became aware that he had been allegedly spied on two days earlier. Then, on the night of Sept. 22 he updated his Facebook status to, "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry." His wallet and cellphone were found on the bridge.
Almost instantly after Clementi's death, media and pundits seized on the case as another example of a gay man being bullied to death – this time using cyber techniques. Early reports falsely claimed that video of Clementi having sex was broadcast over the Internet for viewing by anyone.
Defense lawyers are expected to argue that prosecutors were overzealous in seeking an indictment. They will say that evidence from witnesses and social media records show that Ravi was not homophobic, and that the events of Sept. 19 were grossly distorted when prosecutors presented their case to the grand jury.