Published February 24, 2012
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Opening statements Friday in the trial of a former Rutgers student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man focused on whether the defendant was malicious or just an 18-year-old boy acting his age.
First Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure told jurors that Dharun Ravi deliberately planned to invade Tyler Clementi's privacy "and to deprive him of his dignity."
Ravi's defense lawyer, Steven Altman, said that wasn't true: "He may be stupid at times," Altman said. "He's an 18-year-old boy, but he's certainly not a criminal."
Nineteen-year-old Ravi faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
The case spurred a national conversation about how young gays are treated when news of it broke in September 2010 after Ravi's roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide.
In her half-hour opening statement, McClure did not mention Clementi's suicide.
But she said that Ravi's actions were intended to victimize his roommate.
"They were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's sexual orientation and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's private sexual activity," she said.
Altman said his client saw only seconds of images of Clementi and another man hugging.
"Dharun never intimidated anybody, you'll see that," Altman said. "He never transmitted any images. He never harassed his roommate, he never ridiculed his roommate, he never said anything bad about his roommate."
That's a position McClure tried to dispel preventatively. "The defendant's acts were not a prank, they were not an accident and they were not a mistake," she said. "They were mean-spirited, they were malicious and they were criminal."
It wasn't just that he used his webcam to see what he was up to, she said; he also posted on Twitter to tell others about it and later told them how they'd be able watch.
She also said that Ravi began telling friends that he was unhappy he'd have a gay roommate soon after he received his Rutgers housing assignment in August 2010.
The first witness called by prosecutors was Austin Chung, a high school friend of Ravi's who testified that Ravi told him about seeing Clementi "making out with some dude" via webcam. On cross-examination from Altman, Chung said he didn't know Ravi to have a problem with gay people.
The case was so well known that it took four days to seat a jury of 16 -- including four alternates. Just before opening statements, one more juror was excused after telling the judge that he needed to change an answer he'd given in a questionnaire.
The main alleged crime happened just weeks after Clementi, a violinist from Ridgewood, and Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player from Plainsboro, moved into their dorm room at Rutgers.
Clementi's parents said he told them he was gay in the days before he left for Rutgers. But court filings show that Ravi already knew that from Clementi's web postings.
Authorities say Ravi used the webcam on his computer to check on Clementi when he'd asked to have the room to himself so he could have company.
Ravi posted a Twitter message about it: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
Initially, another first-year Rutgers student, Molly Wei, of Princeton Junction, was also charged in the case. But she entered a pre-trial intervention program last year that allows her to avoid jail time and emerge without a criminal record if she meets a list of conditions for three years. She also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their case against Ravi.
Two nights after the first alleged spying incident, authorities say Ravi tried to do the same thing when Clementi asked him to stay away from the room again.
A day after that, Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge, leaving behind a terse Facebook status updated: "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."