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.

John Munson/The Star-Ledger/AP
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.

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.

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.

He then remotely activated the webcam, and the images of two men kissing and embracing came immediately into view. Though lasting just seconds, it was the reaction that was telling, she said.

“He didn't say, ‘I'm shocked, I didn't think that's what I expected to see. I'm embarrassed. I realize I invaded my roommate's privacy.’ … That's not what he said,” McClure said. “What he did within minutes of that was he sent out a message, an announcement, he sent out a message from his Twitter account.”

The tweet, she said, was: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam and saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

“It was like opening the blinds to the window in that room,” she said. “He opened the blinds … he left the blinds open, and he invited and encouraged other people to look through those blinds,” she said.

Defense attorney Stephen Altman portrayed the events entirely differently, saying Ravi “never harassed his roommate, or ridiculed or spoke negatively about his roommate. He thought he was a nice guy and had no problem with him.”

“You're going to see evidence that Dahrun is not homophobic, not antigay, evidence that he never recorded, never broadcast images of his roommate,” Mr. Altman said.

Ravi, he said, was just a "boy" who was 18 and might be immature when discussing his roommate's sexuality with his friends.

"He might be stupid at times, but he's 18 years old and he's certainly not a criminal," Altman said. Ravi and his friends in Ms. Wei's room saw only seconds of images of Clementi and another man hugging.

“Dharun never intimidated anybody, you'll see that," Altman said.

After opening arguments concluded Friday morning, testimony began in the prosecution’s case.

Prosecution witness Cassandra Cicco, Wei’s roommate, said under cross-examination that the video showed two men, one without a shirt, but it wasn't clear except “through logic” who it was, adding that “it was only like a second long” before it was shut off.

“It didn't really occur to anyone that it was that big of a deal,” she said.

Responding to Altmann, Ms. Cicco said Ravi “didn't have an issue with homosexuals and that he had a good friend who was homosexual.”

Altman asked her if Ravi slept on a desk chair in her room late that night because his own room was occupied. She recalled him sleeping in the chair, she said, but did not know how late.

McClure sought to show how Ravi had approached various students, including friends in the dorm and his frisbee team, and suggested to them that they use their laptops to view his webcam on the evening of Sept. 21 – when Clementi had said he again wanted the room for a private meeting.

Alvin Artha, a friend who lived in the same dorm, testified that Ravi brought him back to the room after the first incident on the 19th – but that he did not view the video clip.

Austin Chung, a teammate of Ravi's, testified that Ravi told a number of people on the team to tune into his webcam on the 21st.

Testimony in the trial is expected to resume on Monday.

Material from the Associated Press is included in this report.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.