Jury selection set to conclude in Rutgers webcam case

Dharun Ravi could face 10-year sentences on two bias charges.
Dharun Ravi could face 10-year sentences on two bias charges.
Posted: February 23, 2012

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Jury selection is expected to wrap up Thursday in the trial of Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student charged with using his computer webcam to secretly view his dormitory roommate in a sexual encounter with another man.

More than a dozen potential jurors were questioned Wednesday as Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman, prosecutors, and defense attorneys worked to select a panel of 16, including four alternates, to hear evidence in the case.

Ravi, who will turn 20 Tuesday, is charged with bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and related offenses. He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on two bias charges, which are often referred to as hate crimes.

Ravi's roommate, Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge days after learning of the September 2010 web-streaming. While Clementi's death is not connected to any of the 15 criminal counts a jury will be asked to consider, it has been inextricably linked to the case.

Ravi, dressed in a dark suit, blue shirt, and tie, sat quietly at the defense table in a second-floor courtroom on Wednesday while Berman questioned prospective jurors who had filled out a questionnaire designed to determine what they knew about the case or whether they had formed opinions that could affect their objectivity.

Despite the international publicity that has surrounded the case, at least three said they knew nothing about it.

Others said they had read or seen reports but could hear the evidence without being influenced by what they had previously learned.

"I read about it when it happened, but I don't listen to radio or watch much TV," one possible juror said.

"My job is to be open-minded and listen to all the testimony," added another.

The case has become a rallying point for gay-rights advocates, who contend that the charges underscore the problems of sexual bias and cyber-bullying.

More than a dozen reporters were on hand for Wednesday's court session. Cable's TruTV, formerly known as Court TV, plans daily coverage of the trial, which is expected to last from three to four weeks.

Through his lawyers, Ravi rejected a plea-bargain offer in December that would have resulted in six months' probation but no jail time.

"He's not guilty," Ravi's lawyer, Steven Altman, said when asked after that court hearing why his client had turned down what appeared to be a very favorable plea deal.

In court documents, Altman has argued that his client was guilty of poor judgment and engaging in an ill-advised college prank, but that he never intended to intimidate or harass Clementi based on his sexual orientation.

A question of intent

Ravi's intent, as much as his alleged actions, will be crucial in the jury's decision, legal experts say.

Clementi, of Ridgewood, and Ravi, of Plainsboro, met in August 2010 when they started their freshman year at Rutgers. They had been assigned to the same dorm room in Davidson Hall on the Piscataway campus.

Ravi had apparently learned that Clementi was gay and joked about it in e-mails to friends before the start of the college year, according to court documents.

Authorities allege that Ravi set up his laptop computer to view activity in the dorm room the night of Sept. 19, 2010, after Clementi asked to have the room to himself, presumably to entertain a visitor. Ravi has said he did so because was concerned about his valuables in the room.

A key witness

Ravi, according to the indictment, went to the room of Molly Wei, a high school acquaintance who lived across the hall, where they used a computer to connect to the iChat webcam set on Ravi's laptop.

Wei, 20, also a freshman at the time, has been charged with invasion of privacy and has agreed to cooperate. She also dropped out of Rutgers shortly after being arrested in October 2010.

Wei, considered a key witness in the case, told a grand jury that she and Ravi watched Clementi and a man groping and embracing. She said they viewed the encounter for just seconds.

She said she and women from the dorm looked another time that night and saw Clementi and a man authorities have identified as "M.B." with their shirts off, embracing. Again, she said, the group viewed the encounter for only a few seconds.

Other evidence includes e-mails, text messages, and tweets in which Ravi joked about the incident, made fun of Clementi, and invited friends to view his live iChat webcam stream on Sept. 21 after Clementi again asked to have the room.

Clementi apparently was aware of the first incident, however, and in e-mails to friends said he shut off Ravi's computer.

Ravi has told authorities that he disabled the computer and never intended to view a second encounter.

Clementi's e-mail and text messages include conflicting accounts of his reaction to what Ravi allegedly did. In some messages he joked about the Sept. 19 incident. In others he said he was upset.

Authorities point out that early Sept. 22 he sent an e-mail to the dormitory's resident adviser asking for a room change.

In that message, Clementi wrote, "I feel that my privacy has been violated," and said Ravi had acted in a "wildly inappropriate manner."

Somewhere between 8 and 9 p.m. that day, authorities say, Clementi jumped to his death.

Clementi's state of mind could factor into deliberations over the bias intimidation charges. In its pretrial filings, the defense has pointed out that Clementi disclosed his sexual orientation to his parents a few weeks earlier.

In a message to a friend, Clementi wrote "Mom has basically rejected me." The defense is expected to offer a picture of Clementi as someone groping with emotional and identity problems.

Clementi's parents, Joseph and Jane, have formed a foundation in their son's memory that will offer grants to programs that deal with gay teenagers, suicide prevention, and bullying.

While they say Ravi should be held accountable for what he did, they have said they do not think the penalties should be harsh.

Ravi also faces charges of evidence and witness tampering and could face deportation. Born in India, he came to this country with his parents when he was a child. He is a legal alien.

Part of the plea deal he rejected was a promise by the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office to assist him in dealing with immigration officials who might attempt deportation as a result of a guilty plea.


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

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