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Rutgers spycam case opening arguments: cyberbully or boy who acted stupidly?

There appears to be no middle ground in the Rutgers spycam case. The prosecution says the defendant hated his roommate because he was gay. The defense says he is 'not homophobic' and never tried to harm him.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2012

Former Rutgers University student, Dharun Ravi, waits in the courtroom Friday in the Superior Court in New Brunswick, N.J. Ravi is accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, as Clementi engaged in an intimate encounter with another man. Days later Clementi committed suicide. Ravi faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.

John Munson/The Star-Ledger/AP

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Jurors heard opening arguments Friday in the case of a former Rutgers college student accused of using a webcam in 2010 to spy on the sexual activity of his roommate in the dorm room they shared – and then telling the world about it through social media tools – with prosecutor and defense attorney portraying the student in diametrically opposing terms.

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A New Jersey state prosecutor described defendant Dharun Ravi as someone who hated his roommate Tyler Clementi because he was gay and used a panoply of social media tools – from Twitter and text messaging to the webcam – to expose the fact he was gay to fellow students and to make his life intolerable.

First Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure told jurors that Mr. Ravi's actions “were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s private sexual activity.”

The defense, however, while allowing Mr. Ravi may have acted stupidly at times, as any 18-year-old might, never hated his roommate or tried to harm him in any way.

The case, now before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman, has become a national symbol of gay bullying. It has garnered unusually heavy news media attention, in part because the array of social media tools involved have made the case appear a particularly virulent example of the type of cyberbullying plaguing the country.

But its notoriety also is tightly linked to the tragedy that lies in back of the case. Mr. Clementi committed suicide just three days later after he was seen on the webcam.

Mr. Ravi has not been charged in Clementi’s death. But he faces 15 counts of invasion of privacy, witness tampering, hindering prosecution, and the most serious charge, bias intimidation, a hate crime that could draw a 10-year sentence.

Ravi is alleged in the indictment to have used a friend’s computer in another dorm room to view an intimate encounter between Clementi and another man he had invited to join him in the dorm room that Clementi and Ravi shared. He is also accused of trying to intimidate Clementi after he learned he had been seen kissing.

Ravi, Ms. McClure also told jurrors in her opening statement, was upset with Clementi before he even met him. Weeks before the two met at college, Mr. Ravi conducted intensive online research, scouring Facebook and online chat forums for clues about him, she explained. After Ravi found evidence on a homosexual chat forum that Clementi was gay, he sent text messages to friends announcing and expressing upset over his roommate's sexual orientation, McClure said.

“What he found out was troubling to him,” she said. “He found out that Clementi was homosexual and he was none too happy about that.”

Once at school, McClure said, Ravi was asked by Clementi for private time to bring a male friend back to the room. Immediately, she said, Ravi took the opportunity to set up his webcam in an effort to expose Clementi to ridicule by purposefully aiming his laptop at the bed area.

After Ravi left the room about 9 p.m. on the night of Sept. 19, 2010, McClure said, he went across the hall to the room belonging to a friend, Molly Wei, and asked to use her computer.

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