On Friday, jurors in a Middlesex County, N.J., courthouse reached a verdict in the case against former Rutgers University student, Dharun Ravi, who was accused on 15 counts of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation for spying on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi. Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September of 2010, but Ravi was not charged in connection with his death.
Ravi was found guilty on all fifteen counts, including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, witness tampering and tampering with evidence.
Sentencing is scheduled for May 21, and Ravi could face up to 10 years in jail or deportation to his native India. What was commonly referred to as the “webcam spying trial” will likely be remembered as a landmark case, in which society was forced to reckon with the implications of new technologies and legislation, with changing attitudes and a story far more complex than it appeared at first glance.
Already, New Jersey State Senator Joseph Vitale, who authored New Jersey’s anti-bias laws, said he intends to update them to clarify how they should be applied to crimes involving digital technology. The judge in Ravi’s case called the laws “muddled.”
While a freshman at Rutgers University, Ravi used his computer’s webcam to spy on Clementi’s intimate encounter with another man, and tweeted about the affair just a day before Clementi’s suicide. In the trial’s last 15 days of deliberations, jurors heard testimony from 30 witnesses, though not from Ravi himself. The jury saw a video of an interview between Ravi and the police. And they learned that the webstream was only broadcast for a few seconds, and that there was no proof it was ever recorded. They were told that after Clementi learned about the spying, he invited “M.B.” — the man he was with during the alleged spying incident — over for a third time, reported The Record.
In his closing statement, Ravi’s attorney asked: If Clementi had indeed felt intimidated by Ravi, why did he then invite “M.B” over to the same room?
Prosecutor Julie McClure said Ravi told his friends that Clementi was gay as soon as he learned who his roommate would be, and that that fact, combined with his actions in the following weeks, demonstrated that Ravi’s crimes were motivated by an anti-gay bias.
To understand why this case is so nuanced, it helps to put it into a political context.
One day after Clementi’s death, “Savage Love” columnist Dan Savage released “It Gets Better,” a viral campaign to reassure gay youths that the bullying they may have experienced their whole lives, but particularly through digital means, would transform into compassion and support as they grew older. And when Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, were charged with invasion of privacy and transmitting sexual encounters on the Internet five days after Clementi’s death, they found themselves in the middle of a growing political firestorm, with anti-bullying and gay rights advocates calling for hate crime charges to be brought against the 18-year-old students.
The bias charges eventually came in April of 2011, which meant an extended sentence of anywhere from five to 10 years. Three weeks later, the public learned that Wei had taken a plea deal with no jail time, in exchange for testifying against Ravi. But then, in November, prosecutors offered Ravi a similar deal, which he rejected.
Asked why he rejected the deal, Ravi’s attorney, Steven Altman, replied, “He’s innocent. He’s not guilty. That’s why he rejected the plea.”
But the prosecutor contended that Ravi viewed a few seconds of a videostream of Clementi kissing another man on a screen in Wei’s dorm room. And that Wei showed the brief clip to several other Rutgers students. And that on Sept. 21, the same man returned to Clementi and Ravi’s room, and Ravi tweeted “Yes, it’s happening again.”
However, as Ian Parker expressed in the New Yorker in February, what initially appeared to be a cut-and-dry case of anti-gay bias that lead to an untimely death, was in fact, more complex.
Parker reported that four minutes after Clementi sent his final text message to the world from atop the George Washington Bridge, Ravi messaged him, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it…I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt.”
Now, as some legal analysts publicly question the bias charges against Ravi, the jury’s decision will certainly set legal precedents, and may likely give future cyber-bullies pause.