New Jersey Jury Sends Strong Message In Webcam Case

Last Friday, a New Brunswick, New Jersey jury reached a verdict in the case of Dharun Ravi, the 20 year old Rutgers sophomore charged with bias intimidation as a hate crime, invasion of privacy and various evidence tampering charges in connection with webcam spying on his roommate Tyler Clementi, as well as text messages, twitter messages and e-mails he sent to several students to watch the video with him. who three days later committed suicide by jumping off the GW Bridge. After 13 days of testimony and 30 witnesses’ testimony, the jury found Ravi guilty on all fifteen counts against him, with the most serious charge of bias intimidation carrying with it the possibility of ten years in prison. Further, as Ravi is not a citizen of the United States, he is subject to removal (previously called deportation) from the United States after his prison term, if he is sentenced to jail by the Court, or immediately, if he is not.

I was somewhat surprised at the conviction of Ravi for bias intimidation, based on the reports of the testimony in the case, with testimony from both prosecution and defense witnesses that Ravi did not hate homosexuals, had never expressed opinions in this regard, and simply was an immature student who was involved in a prank without much consideration to potential consequences. Although it was not well publicized, it is ironic that Ravi apparently apologized to Clementi in a text at approximately the same time that Clementi updated his Facebook page with this ominous message: “Jumping off the GW Bridge, sorry.”

From quotes I’ve read from the jury, it appears that critical evidence against him on the bias intimidation charges was that he attempted to spy on Clementi a second time, two days after the first webcam video on September 19, 2010, and sent numerous texts and twitter messages to friends to watch the potential sexual encounter between Clementi and his male friend. One juror, Bruno Ferreira, indicated that the jury voted to convict on these charges because Ravi sent multiple twitter messages and Clementi’s sexual encounter, and did this on two separate days. Similarly, Lynn Audet, a 45 year old schoolteacher, said that what convinced her on the bias intimidation charge was “to attempt a 2nd time…A reasonable person would have closed it and ended it here, and not tweeted about it.” She also believed, despite arguments from Ravi’s attorney, that it was Clementi, not Ravi, who turned off the camera on that second occasion, preventing any video from being taken.

In any criminal case, the defense attorney is always faced with the conundrum of whether to put his client on the stand, and perhaps in this case, Ravi might have been able to convince the jury that he did not have malicious and homophobic intentions in setting up the webcam to watch his roommate’s gay sexual encounter. The problem, particularly in this case, is that the prosecution was armed with several inches worth of twitter feeds, text messages, and e-mails in which Ravi was quoted as saying things like “got to keep the gays out”, which he certainly would have been confronted with on an extended and grueling cross examination.

The jury obviously soundly rejected the defense theory that the webcam, spying and twitter/text messages were the actions of an immature kid who had no hostile intentions. The defense had offered the clearly weak explanation that Ravi believed Clementi’s older male visitor (identified only as “M.B.”) was “shady” and might try to steal some of Ravi’s possessions while in the room he shared with Clementi. Further, the jury was persuaded that Clementi felt intimidated by the fact that Clementi checked Ravi’s Twitter feed 38 times from the time he learned of the webcam spying until his suicide three days later.

Ravi rejected two plea deals prior to trial. The first would have required a plea of guilty to the bias as a hate crime charge, with a recommendation of 3-5 years in prison, although the judge could have decided to waive the jail time. The second would have included no jail time, probation, 600 hours of community service, and counseling. It is hard to fathom why Ravi would turn down that deal, particularly because the prosecutors were also offering their assistance in working with immigration authorities to prevent Ravi’s removal from the United States.

Ravi’s attorney has vowed to appeal the verdict. He will be sentenced on May 21, 2012 and faces a maximum prison term of 10 years. If Ravi does get prison time, Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials (ICE) would be informed when Ravi is being released from jail, and he could be removed to his native India at that time. Bottom line is that the New Brunswick jury sent a message which will have far reaching and long lasting reverberations: Cyberbullying is just as serious as physical intimidation and the “kids will be kids” defense is, literally, not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.


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