Twist in Rutgers spycam trial: Defense implies the prosecution is biased

Lawyers for Dahrun Ravi, the former Rutgers student accused of using his webcam to spy on his gay roommate out of bias, began Friday to present their defense. They're working to pin the bias charge elsewhere.

John Munson/The Star-Ledger/AP
Dahrun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student on trial waits during a break, Thursday, March 8, in New Brunswick, NJ.

Defense attorneys for Dahrun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student accused of using his webcam to spy on his dorm roommate because he was gay, began efforts Friday to chip away at the prosecution's case, calling character witnesses who testified that Mr. Ravi had never expressed antigay statements to them.

The defense also appeared to be laying a foundation to claim that the state's investigation into Ravi's actions was slanted from the onset, driven by a desire to show antigay bias by Ravi and discounting or ignoring potential witnesses who might undermine that case. To that end, defense lawyers called to the stand an investigator from the prosecutor's office, questioning him in detail about how he selected people to interview in the evidence-gathering process. 

Ravi is 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. 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.

The case's notoriety is tightly linked to the tragedy that lies behind it: Ravi's roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide just three days after he was seen on the webcam. Ravi has not been charged in Clementi’s death.

The New Jersey case, now being tried before Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman, has attracted heavy media attention. It almost instantly became a national symbol of antigay bullying, and it follows on the heels of several other high-profile cases of alleged cyberbulling via social media.

Prosecutors, endeavoring to portray Ravi as a technologically sophisticated student who hated Clementi because he was gay, had called some of Ravi's friends to testify over the past 10 days. Most testified that they never heard Ravi say hateful things about gays. But evidence presented included Twitter posts, text messages, and other digital messages – including an invitation to his friends to a digital "viewing party" of his roommate's private activities. The viewing party never happened, but the messages showed, prosecutors said, that Ravi harassed Clementi because he was gay.

On Friday, defense lawyers called in rapid succession seven men as character witnesses – middle-aged software engineers, several of whom are former business associates of Ravi’s father. All said Dharun never expressed any antigay views to them at any time.

On cross-examination, however, each acknowledged that they had only occasional interaction with the defendant and few real discussions with him, and had never talked with him about homosexuality. 

“Why would that come up?” said one witness, Anil Kappa, a business partner of Ravi’s father, when prosecutor Julia McCLure asked how often he had discussed homosexuality with the younger Ravi.

All testified that they did not follow Twitter and other social media favored by Ravi.

Defense lawyers also called Frank DiNinno, an investigator with the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office, in an apparent bid to show that the investigation was biased from the start, setting out to prove that Ravi should be charged with a hate crime.

Stephen Altman, Ravi's lead defender, questioned Mr. DiNinno about each name on a long list of witnesses whom DiNinno had interviewed, asking whether their statements were recorded or became part of his reports and how he selected whom to interview and whom to omit. 

DiNinno said his superviser and an assistant prosecutor directed him to interview Molly Wei, a Rutgers student whom, with Ravi, watched via Ravi's webcam a few seconds of Clementi kissing another man on Sept. 19, 2010. The investigator also said that he did not record a formal statement from one female college student "because she indicated she hadn't seen" the webcam live stream. 

Later Mr. Altman asked about each person DiNinno interviewed on Ravi's buddy list – the list of contact on his iChat instant communication program.

"What was your purpose, by the way, in speaking to all these people you found on the buddy list?" Altman asked.

"To gather facts about Sept. 19th and Sept. 21st, to see if they had seen any Twitter messages from the defendant, what kind of computers they had, and to confirm they were on his buddy list," DiNinno responded.

"Was one of the purposes, considering you were involved with all these interviews and the investigation, to find out information which could support that my client, Dharun, had any problems with gays or homosexuals?"

"I didn't speak to a witness within this group that would have indicated that," DiNinno responded.

"Thank you for saying that, but that was one of things you were investigating weren't you?" Altman responded.

"We were investingating the entire thing – so we were just gathering up facts for that entire event between the 19th and 21st [of September 2010]," DiNinno said.

"I'm just asking you whether or not one of the purposes in speaking to all of these people ... was to find out if there was any evidence to support that Dharun had some type of bias or problem with homosexuals or gays."

"It was part of the fact-finding process, yes. We covered everything," DiNinno said.

"But that was part of the facting-finding process; it was something you wanted to learn if you could," Altman insisted.

"Yes sir."

Legal experts say that line of questioning may prove to be effective in persuading jurors that investigators were hunting for evidence with a preordained outcome in mind.

"If the prosecution picks and chooses what witnesses it is going to formally interview based solely on the fact that they support your case – and ignore the witnesses to the contrary – then you're creating a cropped picture that does not give a jury a full picture of the truth," says Chris Adams, a Roseland, N.J., criminal defense attorney.

In the end, he says, the trial may hinge on whether the jury comes to believe that prosecutors were overzealous in applying New Jersey's pioneering law that prevents harassment of and bias against gay people – and that Ravi's actions amounted to an immature college prank.

"The defense is going to try to get out that these investigators were picking and choosing only evidence favorable to the state – and that anything to the contrary would be not be interviewed, recorded, or reduced to writing," says Mr. Adams. "If you can show the state is biased, then you undermine the evidence the state presents, pointing out that the case isn't about truth or justice, it's a witch hunt."

Material from Associated Press was used in this report.

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