Experts said Friday's verdict in the Rutgers bullying case is poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology.
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A former Rutgers University student was convicted Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, who subsequently committed suicide.
The verdict is poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology, experts said. “It’s a watershed moment because it says youth is not immunity,” said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice.
The defendant, Dharun Ravi, was found guilty of charges including invasion of privacy and anti-gay intimidation. The jury decided he not only spied on Clementi, 18, and another man as they were kissing but also singled out Clementi because he was gay.
The jury also found Ravi, of Plainsboro, N.J., 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.
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The most serious charges — the two counts of bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, hate crimes — carry up to 10 years in prison each. But legal experts said the most Ravi, 20, would probably get at sentencing May 21 would be 10 years. The judge could also give him no prison time.
Before the trial began, Ravi and his lawyers rejected a plea bargain that would have spared him from prison, and prosecutors would have helped him avoid deportation. He rejected the deal because prosecutors would have required him to admit to bias intimidation.
The case stirred a national conversation about anti-gay bullying and suicide. It also illustrated the dangers of technology in the hands of people who have grown up with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
“They don’t feel like they’re spying. It’s just their own iPhone they’re using, their own laptop,” said Annemarie McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. “Hopefully, parents will use this as an example for their children.”
The verdict was hailed in some circles as a step forward in the fight against bias intimidation of gays. But other legal experts questioned the jury’s decision and predicted it would be appealed.
“The actions of Dharun Ravi were inexcusable and surely added to Tyler Clementi’s vulnerability and pain,” said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lamba Legal, an organization that focuses on civil rights for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.
“The verdict today demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one’s hands.”
But McAvoy said the verdict was “murky and confusing” and could provide the basis for an appeal by Ravi’s attorneys.
“The jury appeared to find that Ravi’s intentions were not out of hatred or bias,” she said. “But the jurors believed Tyler Clementi perceived them as such … It’s an outrageous standard.”
Indeed, Ravi’s lead attorney, Steven Altman, said he would appeal the verdict.
Juror Bruno Ferreira said the convictions on invasion of privacy, witness tampering, evidence tampering and other nonbias counts were not difficult to reach. Deciding on the hate-related charges of bias intimidation was more difficult because it required determining what motivated Ravi, he said after the verdict, NJ.com reported.
In announcing the verdict, jurors made clear they believed Ravi targeted Clementi because of his sexual orientation when he set up a webcam and secretly filmed Clementi and a male date in their dorm room on Sept. 19, 2010.
Prosecutors said Ravi planned to film a second date Clementi had with the man, identified only as M.B., two days later and have a “viewing party” for other students, but that Clementi learned of the spying and turned off the camera.
Clementi, who was portrayed as a talented violinist who had come out as gay to his parents a few days before starting college, threw himself into the Hudson River from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, after updating his Facebook status to read, “jumping off the gw bridge.”
Defense witnesses testified Ravi never expressed anti-gay sentiments, and Altman said Ravi was guilty of a youthful indiscretion at most. Altman also said Ravi set up the webcam to keep an eye on his belongings while Clementi and his date — a 32-year-old nonstudent whom Ravi did not know — used his and Clementi’s dorm room.
But one witness testified he helped Ravi adjust the webcam to focus on Clementi’s bed, not on the side of the room where Ravi’s valuables were kept. Another witness, Molly Wei, who with Ravi watched the first webcam images of Clementi and M.B., testified that Ravi appeared “shocked” by the sight of two men kissing.
A student residential adviser testified Clementi asked for a room change and did not feel comfortable with Ravi as his roommate after learning of the Sept. 19 spying.
Prosecutors used social media to bolster their case. They focused on Twitter messages Ravi sent to other Rutgers students that mentioned his roommate’s dates with M.B.
They also cited text messages Wei and Ravi exchanged after Clementi’s suicide, which prosecutors said indicated Ravi was trying to cover his actions.
Prosecutors also examined Clementi’s online activities and said his constant checking of Ravi’s Twitter account showed Clementi feared humiliation at the hands of his roommate.
“No doubt the evidence that showed Mr. Clementi checked the defendant’s Twitter feed — where the defendant said his roommate was ‘kissing a dude’ — 38 times … was persuasive evidence,” said Margaret Finerty, a former New York criminal-court judge and a partner at the law firm Getnick & Getnick.
Clementi’s parents and brother listened in silence as the verdict was delivered. Ravi, who has been allowed to remain free but had to surrender his passport, did not speak as he left the courthouse with his parents, his father’s hand held firmly on his shoulder.
Clementi’s father, Joseph, read a statement urging young people to “make the world a better place” by being tolerant of others. “You’re going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime,” he said. “Some of these people you may not like, but just because you may not like them doesn’t mean you have to work against them. You can make the world a better place.”
Compiled from The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Associated Press