NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – In one of the highest-profile trials in the United States, a former student at Rutgers University is facing charges that he used his personal computer to spy on his gay roommate having sex during their first month at school.
Dharun Ravi, 20, is also charged with a second unsuccessful attempt to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, shortly before Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Clementi’s suicide followed several other gay and lesbian youths taking their lives and focused the national spotlight on the bullying of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered young people.
The trial began February 24 with Judge Glenn Berman presiding at the Middlesex County Courthouse in downtown New Brunswick. News programs from around the world have covered the trial and the area near the courthouse has been dominated by satellite TV trucks and news crews ever since.
Ravi could face deportation if convicted of any of the charges, as he is a citizen of India. That decision will rest with the federal government. He was raised in Middlesex County, but was not born in the US.
Ravi faces fifteen charges including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, witness tampering, and evidence tampering. Bias intimidation, a hate crime, could mean up to ten years in prison for Ravi. While he is not charged directly with his Clementi’s suicide, his roommate’s specter hangs over the court proceeding.
For the bias intimadation charge to stick the defense must prove that Ravi acted maliciously out of homophobia. The case is breaking new legal ground in the areas of technology, privacy and bias law.
Ravi’s defense team is headed by Steve Altman, of the New Brunswick firm Benedict & Altman. The defense rejected an initial plea bargain that would have resulted in a sentence of three to five years in prison, and a second offer that would have meant no jail time. The second deal also stated that the county prosecutor would advocate to keep Ravi in the US, though there was no guarantee the federal government would not deport him.
Altman has argued that Ravi turned on and watched the broadcast of Clementi and his lover was because he was “weirded out” by Clementi’s guest and afraid his iPad might get stolen. Video of police interrogating Ravi showed he gave a simliar explanation to investigators. However, in perhaps the most damning evidence in the trial, he admitted to invading his roommate’s privacy during the interview.
The defense also maintained that the broadcast was a prank and not malicious.
“He may be stupid at times,” Altman said. “He’s an 18-year-old boy, but he’s certainly not a criminal.”
Both Ravi and a neighbor in his Piscataway dorm, Molly Wei, viewed Clementi and a 30-year-old non-student male making out on September 19. Ravi and Wei, also a freshman at the time, withdrew from the University after they were charged later that month. Wei accepted a plea deal to have her charges dismissed if she testified against Ravi, who she knew from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School. She also was required to enter a pretrial intervention program.
Clementi found out about the spying quickly thanks to Ravi’s comments on his public Twitter page. Ravi tried to watch again on September 21, advertising it on Twitter, but Clementi saw the communications and unplugged Ravi’s computer.
Ravi initially encouraged his Twitter followers to connect to the live image from his computer’s webcam using Apple software called iChat. After Clementi’s death, he modified the message to say “don’t you dare videochat me” instead of “I dare you to video chat me.”
A computer whiz, Ravi had customized the program to automatically accept video chat invitations, allowing him and anyone else with the software to observe the view from the computer’s videocamera.
Both tweets included the sentence, “It’s happening again,” referring to Tyler’s second request to have the shared room to himself, which Ravi presumed to be for the purpose of being intimate with the mystery man.
Because of the altered tweet, as well as 86 text messages Ravi deleted from his cellphone, many advertising the broadcast of his roommate to others, Ravi is also being charged with evidence tampering.
Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 22.
Wei, the first major witness in the trial, testified on February 28, saying that she and Ravi only watched the camera for 5 seconds or so on the night of September 19. Wei said that later she again turned on the camera from her room and that her and several friends saw Clementi and his guest with their shirts off.
Lokesh Ojha took the witness stand on March 29, and admitted to lying to investigators in the case under cross examination. He said he had helped Ravi to set up the camera, ensuring it was facing Clementi’s bed before the second attempt to spy.
Ohja testified that Ravi was adjusting the camera and he gave him a thumbs up when it had a clear shot of Clementi’s bed. Altman asked Ojha why he initially concealed his involvement from authorities when questioned by police, explaining that he was fearful for his career.
“I thought my college career was over because I helped him, I helped him set it up.”
Raahi Grover, the resident assistant for the dormitory, was approached by Clementi the day before his suicide. Grover wrote a memo to his supervisors requesting a roommate transfer as soon as possible and noted that Clementi wanted some disciplinary action for Ravi.
In an email to Mr. Grover, Clementi wrote, “I feel that my privacy has been violated and I am extremely uncomfortable about sharing a room with someone who would act in this wildly inappropriate manner.”
Judge Berman approved a request from the defense to black out “wildly inappropriate” from the message as hearsay. Another form filled out by Tyler requesting a roommate switch had the reason blacked out for the jurors, but it said “roommate spied on me.”
Geoffrey Irving, a former ultimate frisbee teammate of Ravi’s, was called as a witness by prosecution to build the case that Ravi acted out of homophobia. He said that Ravi “appeared uncomfortable” about Tyler’s sexuality, but under cross-examination Irving said Ravi did not say explicitly that he was homophobic.
The most anticpated witness of the trial, Clementi’s lover, testified on March 2 and March 5. Because the man, now 32 years old, is also considered a victim of the alleged crimes, his attorney Richard Pompelio fought for his identity to be kept secret from the public. He is also still in the closet, according to his attorney.
Judge Berman ruled that Clementi’s lover would only be known by his initials, M.B. Journalists were only allowed to show visuals of hands and the audio of the proceedings was not broadcast as it has for the rest of the trial.
News reports from the courtroom found him not to be “shabby or “shady” as other witnesses had said.
M.B. testified that he noticed the camera aimed at the bed, though he did not bring it up to Tyler. He explained that it jumped out at him because he was “in a vulnerable position”.
“I just happen to glance over, and it just caught my eye that there was a camera facing directly at me,” M.B. said.
He also testified that he heard laughter in the hallway, adding that it sounded like it was at someone else’s expense. M.B. told the court that when he left the dorm, a group of people in the hallway were staring at him, but he did not engage them because he was a guest in their buildng.
He also said he had wanted to see Clementi again, but that he did not want to go back to the dormitory.
Middlesex County Detective Gary Charydczak testified on March 6 that his investigation found that Clementi viewed Ravi’s twitter 38 times and took screenshots of Ravi’s tweets in the two days before his suicide.
Robert Torrisi, an investigator with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, testified on Wednesday. He is the brother of New Brunswick City Clerk Daniel Torrisi.
Torrisi was asked about hundreds of photographs he took of text messages saved on Ravi’s phone. Building the case for the charge of hindering apprehension, Torissi testified that Ravi had deleted dozens of text messages: 55 between him and Michele Huang, and 31 between him and Wei.
Huang testified that, in one of the texts, Ravi joked that his spying would “keep the gays away” from his bed. He lobbied hard for Huang, a student at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, to tune in to the broadcast during the time Clementi had requested the room.
He also mentioned his doormmates would be hosting a “viewing party” with beer and liquor.
A text mesage he sent to Molly Wei while she was being interrogated by investigators is one of the reasons he is charged with witness tampering, as well: “Did you tell them we did it on purpose?”
As the prosecution wrapped up their case against Ravi, they introduced a video of Ravi’s interview with the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office on September 23.
In the footage, Ravi was asked about his tweet daring followers to connect to the broadcast.
“Obviously, I said that in a sarcastic way and turned off my camera.”
He also claimed his remarks about a viewing party were not serious: “I was joking around saying kids here were going to have a viewing party,” he said.
One of the interrogators observed: “You do a lot of joking.”
“When I’m uncomfortable about something,” Ravi responded, “I joke about it.”
Before Clementi jumped from the bridge he posted a short farewell on his Facebook page: “Jumping off the gwb sorry.”
Just five minutes after Clementi’s post, Ravi sent a lengthy text message to Clementi:
I want to explain what happened. Sunday night when you requested to have someone over I didn’t realize you wanted the room in private. I went to Mollys room and I was showing her how I set up my computer so I can access it from anywhere. I turned on my camera and saw you in the corner of the screen and I immediately closed it. I felt uncomfortable and guilty of what happened. Obviously I told people what occurred so they could give me advice. Then Tuesday when you requested the room again I wanted to make sure what happened Sunday wouldn’t happen again and not to video chat me from 930 to 12. Just in case, I turned my camera away and put my computer to sleep so even if anyone tried it wouldn’t work. I wanted to make amends for Sunday night. I’m sorry if you heard something distorted and disturbing but I assure you all my actions were good natured.
Ten minutes later, he sent Clementi a final communication:
I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.
The defense began their case on Friday, and will resume Monday at 9am in Room 202 of the Middlesex County Courthouse, 56 Paterson Street. Live video is available on News12.com, and extensive coverage can be seen on truTV’s “In Session,” which airs from 9am to 3pm every weekday.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.