NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. _ Hate crime or stupid teenage prank?
The future of Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student charged with secretly viewing his roommate in a sexual encounter with another man, could rest on how jurors interpret his actions.
In opening arguments Friday at Ravi’s trial, a Superior Court jury heard two versions of a case that gay-rights advocates say underscores the problems of harassment and bullying faced by homosexual teenagers. The story attracted international attention after Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge days after learning that Ravi had used a laptop webcam to spy on him with a man.
“This isn’t about Dharun Ravi having to like Tyler Clementi’s (sexual) orientation,” Middlesex County First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure told the jury. “It’s about having the decency to respect it.”
McClure called Ravi’s actions “malicious and criminal,” and argued that he set out to harass and intimidate Clementi because he was gay.
But Steven Altman, Ravi’s lawyer, asked jurors to withhold judgment until they heard all of the facts, contending that the prosecution had put a “spin” on the case that was not supported by the evidence.
Ravi, who will turn 20 on Tuesday, is not a bigot and is not homophobic, Altman said.
At the time of the incidents described in the criminal case, he said, his client was “an 18-year-old boy” beginning his first year in college.
“Don’t rush to judgment. Keep things in perspective,” Altman said during a 25-minute opening in which he used the word “boy more than a dozen times to describe his client, of Plainsboro.
Ravi “might have been stupid,” Altman said, “but he certainly wasn’t a criminal.”
Dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and tie, Ravi sat quietly at the defense table in the packed courtroom. His parents and friends sat two rows behind him.
On the other side of the room, Clementi’s family _ including his mother, father, and a brother _ also sat with friends and relatives.
Both sets of parents declined to comment about the case.
Jane and Joseph Clementi, of Ridgewood, have become advocates for gay-rights issues involving teenagers since the death of their son. They have started a foundation in his name aimed at raising funds for programs that encourage awareness of the problems of bullying and harassment.
Ravi, who dropped out of Rutgers after being arrested in October 2010, has been charged in a 15-count criminal indictment that alleges he secretly watched Clementi and a man on Sept. 19, 2010, and attempted but failed to view them again on Sept. 21.
Tyler Clementi jumped to his death Sept. 22. His death is not connected to any of the charges in the case, but has been continually linked to it.
Ravi could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bias intimidation, a so-called hate-crime offense. He also faces charges of invasion of privacy, hindering prosecution, and witness tampering.
He turned down a plea offer in December that would have included six months’ probation but no jail time.
Authorities allege that Ravi secretly set up his laptop webcam to spy on Clementi after Clementi asked if he could have their dorm room to himself on the night of Sept. 19 because he would be entertaining a visitor. The visitor, identified only as “M.B.” in court papers, is expected to be called as a witness.
Altman, hinting at his defense, said in his opening that M.B. was a 30-year-old whom other students had described as “scruffy,” “shady-looking,” and a “creepy older dude.”
Court documents indicate that Clementi met M.B. through a gay-oriented Internet chat room called Adam4Adam that summer and invited him several times to his dorm room in Davidson Hall on Rutgers’ Piscataway campus.
Altman asked the jury to remember that “this was Dharun’s room” as well as Clementi’s, hinting at a possible defense that Ravi had set up the webcam because he was concerned about his property.
McClure, however, said Ravi’s intent was clear from emails and text messages he sent to friends in which he mocked Clementi and invited others to connect to his live iChat Web stream to see for themselves. He tried a second time on Sept. 21 when Clementi again met with M.B., she said, but authorities said Clementi had turned off Ravi’s computer.
McClure described Ravi as someone whose “bravado led to his downfall.”
Altman said his client “thought Clementi was a nice guy” and never attempted to harass or intimidate him.
He said Ravi was a “technological genius” and a master with computers, but he emphasized that in September 2010 “he was a boy” who in many ways was “childish and immature.”
“We’ve all done stupid things in our lives,” he said.
The trial is expected to last for three to four weeks.
In addition to M.B., another key witness expected to be called in the trial is Molly Wei, who lived across the hall from Clementi and Ravi in Davidson Hall. Wei, who attended the same high school as Ravi, agreed to cooperate after being charged with invasion of privacy.
Authorities say Ravi first viewed Clementi and M.B. from a computer in Wei’s dorm room on Sept. 19 and then invited others to view them. Wei has told a grand jury that viewing lasted “a few seconds.”
In testimony later Friday, jurors heard from several Rutgers students, including Cassandra Cicco, Wei’s roommate.
Cicco said she briefly viewed the live webcam stream on Wei’s laptop and saw two men, one shirtless, leaning against a bed kissing.
“It was two people making out,” she said. “It wasn’t that big a deal.”
Under cross-examination by Altman, Cicco said Ravi later told her “he didn’t really have an issue with homosexuals. … He had a really good friend who was a homosexual.”