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At Rutgers spycam trial, a struggle to prove antigay motive, say analysts

Legal analysts tracking the Rutgers spycam trial of former student Dharun Ravi say prosecutors have had a hard time proving the most serious charge – that Ravi targeted his roommate because he was gay.

By Staff writer / March 7, 2012

Dharun Ravi sits in the courtroom during his trial at the Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J., on March 5.

John O'Boyle/The Star-Ledger/AP

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Prosecutors are wrapping up their case against Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student charged with using his computer's webcam to spy on and cyberbully his dorm roommate. But legal analysts who have been following the trial say the prosecution has struggled to build a solid case on the most serious charge: that Mr. Ravi targeted his roommate because he was gay.

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Some go so far as to say prosecutors didn't present irrefutable evidence as to Ravi's motive for attempting to humiliate his roommate, Tyler Clementi. Clementi killed himself on Sept. 22, 2010, and an investigator testified this week that Clementi, in his final hours, had viewed one last time Ravi's online posts on the social media site Twitter – something his computer records show he had monitored 59 times over the previous nine days. Clementi had saved two screen shots of things Ravi had tweeted about him.

"The bias aspect of the case is still weak," says John Fahy, a former New Jersey prosecutor. "Prosecutors have presented a very good invasion-of-privacy case, but [they] also have to show that he [Ravi] tried to intimidate his roommate because of his sexual orientation. I don't think they have shown Ravi hated gays or hated his roommate because he was gay."

Robert Honecker, a New Jersey prosecutor for 25 years now in private practice, has a similar assessment. "What stands out is that among the witnesses, particularly his friends and those he was with, each and every one of them said Ravi never exhibited to them antigay or homophobic sentiments and was not affronted by that type of sexual orientation," he says.

The case, being tried in New Jersey before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman, has already become a national symbol of antigay bullying. That, plus its similarities to other cases of meanness and bullying via high-tech tools and social media, means the trial has attracted heavy media attention. 

"This is a case where, for the first time, prosecutors are utilizing many different social network mediums – Twitter, text messaging, Internet and computers, webcams – to prove a criminal case," Mr. Honecker says. "Young people use these mediums as if they are in face-to-face conversations, and they need to recognize that anything in these social networking forums can be retrieved and utilized to establish crimes."

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