Opening statements begin in Rutgers student suicide

Reuters News
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Posted: Feb 24, 2012 1:28 PM
Opening statements begin in Rutgers student suicide

By Jonathan Allen

NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Prosecutors kicked off opening statements on Friday in the trial of a former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to spy on his roommate's homosexual tryst, saying he violated the "dignity and privacy" of his roommate who later committed suicide.

Defense attorneys countered that Dharun Ravi, 19, behaved childishly but did not commit any crime. He faces 15 counts of invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering and bias intimidation, a hate crime, in New Jersey's Middlesex County Court.

Ravi, who rejected an earlier plea deal, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted in the case that attracted wide media attention as an incident of cyber-bullying. But early reports that the tryst had been shown on the Internet, "outing" the roommate Tyler Clementi, proved false.

Ravi used a webcam on September 19, 2010, to watch Clementi, who was kissing another man in their dormitory room. He also posted on Twitter inviting friends to watch another encounter that did not take place.

Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge three days later. Ravi is not charged with causing Clementi's death.

"Someone once said never take away another person's dignity. It means everything to them and nothing to you," prosecutor Julia McClure told the jury.

"This isn't about Dharun Ravi having to like Tyler Clementi's sexual orientation ... but it is about having the decency to respect it and to respect Tyler's dignity and privacy," she said.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Steven Altman emphasized Ravi's youth, saying: "He's a boy, childish, at times immature. He was 18."

Ravi and Clementi shared the dorm room, he noted in an apparent strategic effort to undermine the invasion of privacy charge by noting that Ravi was looking into his own room.

"It's Dharun's room. I can't emphasize that enough," he said. "That's where he lives."

He also noted that Ravi made no recording of the incident nor did he put it online.

"That viewing lasted 2 to 5 seconds," the defense attorney said. "Nobody saw anything.

Members of the Ravi and Clementi families were in court for the first day of testimony. Ravi, dressed neatly in a dark suit and tie, watched attentively from the defense table.

Experts say it may be difficult to prove the incident was a hate crime. For such a conviction, prosecutors must prove Ravi attempted to intimidate Clementi for being gay. Both were freshmen at the time.

McClure said Ravi was "motivated by the fact that Tyler and his guest, who was a male, were homosexual."

She said when Ravi found out his roommate was gay, "he was not too happy about that."

But the defense said Ravi was "not homophobic."

"He never harassed his roommate. He thought he was a nice guy. He never had a problem with him," Altman said.

Clementi asked the university to switch roommates and posted his concerns on an Internet forum for gay men, which prosecutors are likely to point to as evidence he felt intimidated.

The defense described the man with Clementi, identified in court only by the initials M.B., as an older, unsavory character in Ravi's room. Altman said Rutgers students who saw him called him "a scruffy, shady-looking, creepy, homeless-looking dude."

Another student, Molly Wei, also was originally charged in the case, accused of watching the tryst along with Ravi. She has entered a plea deal that requires her to testify against Ravi.

The first witness called to the witness stand was a high school friend of Ravi's who also was a friend of Wei's.

(Editing By Ellen Wulfhorst and Paul Thomasch)