HADDONFIELD, N.J. – A lawyer for a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man says in newly filed legal papers that prosecutors got it all wrong and that the case should be dropped.
Nineteen-year-old Dharun Ravi faces charges, including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy, in the case that's been linked to roommate Tyler Clementi's death last September when he jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
Clementi's suicide sparked a national discussion about bullying and gay youth that prompted celebrities, senators and President Barack Obama to speak out.
But defense lawyer Steven Altman said in a brief filed Wednesday that his client was not spying on Clementi. Altman said Ravi initially turned on his webcam from a friend's computer to see what was going on in the dorm room because he was concerned about whether the man Clementi had over might steal Ravi's iPad. He stopped watching "two seconds" after seeing the men kissing, Altman said.
Altman provided text messages that he said Ravi sent Clementi on Sept. 22 — about the time the 18-year-old violinist from Ridgewood was on the suspension bridge crossing the Hudson River.
"I turned on my camera and saw you in the corner of the screen and I immediately closed it. I felt uncomfortable and guilty of what happened," the message said. "Obviously I told people what occurred so they could give me advice. Then Tuesday when you requested the room again I wanted to make sure what happened Sunday wouldn't happen again ... I turned my camera away and put my computer to sleep so even if anyone tried it wouldn't work. I wanted to make amends for Sunday night. I'm sorry if you heard something distorted and disturbing but I assure you all my actions were good natured."
Another said, in part: "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it."
Altman argued in the brief that prosecutors did not present evidence that Ravi would have broken the law by using a webcam to monitor what was happening in the dorm room he shared with Clementi, that he actually viewed any sexual images from his webcam, that he copied or distributed them, or that he deleted Twitter posts about what was on the webcam to hide evidence from investigators.
The lawyer also said prosecutors failed to give the grand jury some evidence that may have established that Ravi was not acting out of hatred for gay people — a key element of the bias intimidation charge, which carries a sentence up to 10 years in prison and is the most serious charge Ravi faces.
Neither Jim O'Neill, a spokesman for the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, nor Paul Mainardi, a lawyer for Clementi's family, immediately returned messages left Thursday evening.
Another student, Molly Wei, was also charged in the case. In May, she was admitted to a pretrial intervention program that could leave her with no criminal record. Conditions include cooperating with prosecutors and avoiding run-ins with the law for three years.
Altman asked the court to force prosecutors to hand over more information if the case goes forward — including the full name and address of the man with whom Clementi had an encounter. He's been listed in legal papers only as "M.B."
The Star-Ledger first reported on the brief Thursday.