Jury Finds Spying in Rutgers Dorm Was a Hate Crime

New Brunswick, N.J. — A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man, a verdict poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology.

“It’s a watershed moment, because it says youth is not immunity,” said Marcellus A. McRae, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.

The student, Dharun Ravi, had sent out Twitter and text messages encouraging others to watch. His roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge three days after the webcam viewing, three weeks into their freshman year in September 2010.

The case set off a debate about whether hate-crime statutes are the best way to deal with bullying. While Mr. Ravi was not charged with Mr. Clementi’s death, some legal experts argued that he was being punished for it, and that this would result only in ruining another young life. They, along with Mr. Ravi’s lawyers, had argued that the case was criminalizing simple boorish behavior.

But Bruce J. Kaplan, the prosecutor in Middlesex County, applauded the jury for sending a strong message against bias.

“They felt the pain of Tyler,” he said.

Mr. Ravi, 20, wearing a dark suit over his slight frame, sat expressionless as the jury forewoman read the verdict on the first count, of invasion of privacy. But he seemed surprised when she pronounced him guilty on the next charge, of bias intimidation. His eyes popped and he quickly turned his head from the jury. As he left the courtroom in a swarm of television cameras, his mother clutching his arm, he looked straight ahead and said nothing.

The jury also found him guilty of lying to investigators, trying to influence a witness and tampering with evidence after he tried to cover up Twitter and text messages inviting others to join in the viewing.

Some of the charges carry penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison. Mr. Ravi has surrendered his passport; prosecutors said he could face possible deportation to his native India, but that decision would be left to immigration officials. Judge Glenn Berman set sentencing for May 21.

The case was a rare one in which almost none of the facts were in dispute. Mr. Ravi’s lawyers agreed that he had set up a webcam on his computer, and had then gone into a friend’s room and viewed Mr. Clementi kissing a man he met a few weeks earlier on a Web site for gay men. He sent Twitter and text messages urging others to watch when Mr. Clementi invited the man again two nights later, then deleted messages after Mr. Clementi killed himself.

That account had been established by a long trail of electronic evidence — from Twitter feeds and cellphone records, dormitory surveillance cameras, dining hall swipe cards and a “net flow” analysis showing when and how computers in the dormitory connected.

What the jury had to decide, and what set off debate outside as well as inside the courtroom, was what Mr. Ravi and Mr. Clementi were thinking.

Had Mr. Ravi set up the webcam because he had a pretty good idea that he would see Mr. Clementi in an intimate moment? Had he targeted Mr. Clementi and the man he was with because they were gay? And had Mr. Clementi been in fear?

Without Mr. Clementi to speak for himself, that last question was perhaps the most difficult to determine, and jurors struggled with it.

“That was the hardest because you really can’t get into someone’s head,” said one, Bruno Ferreira, as he left the court. The jury deliberated longest — for well more than an hour, he said — on the bias intimidation charge.

Mr. Ferreira said he ultimately voted guilty on the bias intimidation charge because Mr. Ravi had sent multiple Twitter messages about Mr. Clementi.

“They were being done twice, not just one day,” he said.

Another juror, Kashad Leverett, himself a student and a Twitter user, said he could relate to Mr. Ravi’s constant stream of Twitter and text messages.

But the defense’s insistence that Mr. Ravi had set up the webcam because he was afraid Mr. Clementi’s visitor would steal something, he said, rang hollow.

“If I knew someone was going to steal something from me, I would definitely take it with me,” Mr. Leverett said, adding, “Just from the fact of the second incident, it seemed that it was intentional.”

The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for 13 hours over 3 days after 13 days of testimony.

Reflecting the difficulty of defining hate crimes, it had taken the judge more than an hour simply to instruct the jury on the questions they had to answer to reach a verdict.

The jury concluded that Mr. Ravi had not knowingly or purposely intimidated the men when he watched the first time, on Sept. 19, 2010.

But it found him guilty of the charge because Mr. Clementi “reasonably believed” he had been made a target because he was gay.

The prosecution had pointed out that Mr. Clementi had checked Mr. Ravi’s Twitter feed — where Mr. Ravi told others he had seen his roommate “kissing a dude” — 38 times in the days after the first webcam viewing. Records showed that Mr. Clementi had gone online to request a room change, and a resident assistant testified that Mr. Clementi had complained to him.

Mr. Clementi’s parents, Joe and Jane, attended the trial each day, sitting in the front row and showing little emotion.

After the verdict, Joe Clementi, the director of public works in the northern New Jersey town of Hawthorne, read a brief statement, saying the trial had been “painful for us, as it would be for any parent who must sit and listen to people talk about bad and inappropriate things that were done to their child.”

Mostly, he said, he wanted to deliver a message to middle- and high-school students.

“You’re going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime,” he said. “Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean you have to work against them. When you see somebody doing something wrong, tell them: ‘That’s not right. Stop it.’ The change you want to see in the world begins with you.”

Mr. Clementi’s suicide came up only in passing during the trial. Still, the death defined the trial, turning what might have been a peeping Tom case or, as the resident assistant said, “a roommate issue” into something far more grave.

The testimony painted a picture of two college freshmen, both from top-performing high schools in well-off suburbs, who could not have been more different. Mr. Clementi was shy and awkward, an accomplished violinist who had only recently told his parents he was gay. Mr. Ravi was popular but boastful, a computer wizard and ultimate Frisbee player who communicated with friends constantly via Twitter, text message and iChat.

Mr. Ravi’s parents, who brought him here from India when he was young, sat vigil behind him each day, with a large group of friends, including several who had served as character witnesses for Mr. Ravi, testifying he was not biased against gay people.

Mr. Ravi had rejected plea deals, because prosecutors would have required him to admit to bias intimidation. His lawyers said he simply did not believe he had committed a hate crime. They argued that he was “a kid” with little experience of homosexuality who had stumbled into a situation that scared him.

His lead lawyer, Steven Altman, made only a brief statement via e-mail following the verdict, saying “rest assured” he would appeal.

Gay rights advocates, who had used the example of Mr. Clementi’s suicide to push New Jersey to pass what is considered the nation’s toughest antibullying law, hailed the jury’s decision.

“This verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” said Steven Goldstein, the chairman of Garden State Equality.

Mr. Kaplan, the county prosecutor, rejected suggestions that Mr. Ravi would not have been on trial if Mr. Clementi had not killed himself. Even if he had not, he said, “under these facts, under this evidence, we would prosecute this case.”

William Glaberson and David M. Halbfinger contributed reporting from New York, and Nate Schweber from New Brunswick.

by Kate Zernike
Source – The New York Times