Guilty Verdict in Rutgers Webcam Spying Case
By David Ariosto, CNN
(CNN) — A former Rutgers University student accused of spying on and intimidating his gay roommate by use of a hidden webcam was found guilty on all counts, including invasion of privacy and the more severe charges of bias intimidation, in a case that thrust cyberbullying into the national spotlight.
Dharun Ravi, 20, could now face up to 10 years in jail and deportation to his native India. He was also found guilty of witness tampering, hindering apprehension and tampering of physical evidence.
The jury was confronted with a series of questions on each charge. Though it found Ravi not guilty on several questions within the verdict sheet, because he was found guilty on at least one question on each main count, he could now face the maximum penalty.
His roommate, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman, killed himself in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after learning that Ravi had secretly spied on his sexual encounter with another man.
CNN legal analyst Paul Callan called Friday’s verdict “unprecedented,” adding that it “sends a message to people across the rest of the country” about the potential consequences of unauthorized webcam use.
“New Jersey enacted a law that said if you secretly record somebody with a webcam or any other kind of video and you broadcast that without their permission, that is a crime,” Callan said. “Every place else in America up until this law was enacted, you could sue somebody for civil damages for the embarrassment, but you weren’t going to go to jail. New Jersey said it’s criminal.”
And because prosecutors were able to prove that Ravi’s actions were born of a gay bias, the possible sentence doubles from five years to 10 years behind bars.
Clementi’s death stirred discussion about bullying, with President Barack Obama releasing a videotaped message less than a month later condemning it. A few months later, New Jersey legislators enacted stricter laws to protect against bullying in schools.
Prosecutors have said that Ravi tried to embarrass Clementi because he was gay and that his actions were motivated by a desire to inspire fear in the Ridgewood, New Jersey, native because of his sexual orientation.
“These acts were purposeful, they were intentional, and they were planned,” prosecutor Julia L. McClure told the jury on the first day of the trial. Ravi “was bothered by Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation,” she later said more bluntly.
Ravi’s attorneys argued their client acted thoughtlessly, portraying him as an immature college student who made a mistake, and that his actions were not based on homophobia.
“He hasn’t lived long enough to have any experience with homosexuality or gays,” attorney Steven Altman said in closing arguments this week. “He doesn’t know anything about it. He just graduated high school.”
Altman was not immediately available for comment following Friday’s verdict.
Ravi and fellow student Molly Wei — who admitted joining Ravi to watch the surreptitious webcam encounter that others were alerted to via social media — were charged in the wake of Clementi’s suicide. They were not, however, charged directly with his death.
Facing two counts of invasion of privacy, Wei reached a plea deal in May that required her to testify against her friend and former high school classmate as well as to complete a three-year program on cyberbullying and do 300 hours of community service.
Ravi turned down a plea deal offered by Middlesex County prosecutors that would have allowed him to avoid jail time in exchange for undergoing counseling, doing 600 hours of community service and disposing of any information that could identify the man who appeared in the Web video with Clementi.
Prosecutors also offered to help Ravi avoid deportation, though they said they could not guarantee it. Ravi, who had been studying on a visa at the New Jersey university, did not testify on his own behalf.
During the prosecution’s phase of the trial, the man whom Clementi was intimate with, identified only as “M.B.,” told jurors that he had noticed a Web camera aimed directly at Clementi’s bed.
The 32-year-old man testified that he met Clementi on a social-networking site for gay men and that they eventually met three times in the student’s dorm room. The two conversed online, exchanged text messages and later had sex, he said.
Wei testified that she watched a sexual liaison involving M.B. and Clementi after Ravi had secretly set up the webcam in his and Clementi’s dormitory room.
Ravi’s attorney, Altman, has argued his client had initially switched on the webcam to monitor his personal items because he did not trust his roommate’s visitor.
In Twitter messages from that day, Ravi wrote that he’d gone into a friend’s room, “turned on my webcam” and saw his roommate “making out with a dude.”
On September 22, 2010, Clementi took a train to New York and posted a mobile status update on his Facebook page that read, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” before killing himself.
Ravi had apparently tried to make amends with his estranged roommate that same night, according to text messages revealed in court.
“I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it,” Ravi wrote in messages after he apparently learned his roommate had requested a dormitory room change.
It is not clear whether Clementi ever viewed the messages.
— InSession’s Jim Kyle contributed to this report.