A former Rutgers University student convicted Friday in the webcam spying episode that ended in his gay roommate's suicide could be headed off to prison in a case experts say stands as a tragic lesson for young people about casual cruelties and unintended consequences in the internet age.
A jury found Dharun Ravi guilty of all 15 counts against him, deciding that Ravi not only invaded the privacy of Tyler Clementi and another man but also committed bias intimidation — a hate crime — by targeting Clementi because he was gay.
He could get up to 10 years in prison, by some estimates — and could be deported to his native India, even though he has lived legally in the U.S. since he was a little boy.
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The case stirred an international conversation about anti-gay bullying and teen suicide. It also illustrated the dangers of technology in the hands of people who have grown up with the likes of Twitter and Facebook.
"They don't feel like they're spying. It's just their own iPhone they're using, their own laptop," said Annemarie McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Hopefully, parents will use this as an example for their children." On the Rutgers campus, student Melvin Ways said: "I think the lesson here is not everything is meant to be publicized to the entire world, especially private matters and things that are personal to people."
Prosecutors said Ravi set up a webcam in his dorm room in September 2010 and captured roommate Tyler Clementi kissing another man, then tweeted about it and excitedly tried to catch Clementi in the act again two days later. A half-dozen students were believed to have seen the live video of the kissing.
Within days, Clementi realized he had been watched and leaped from the George Washington Bridge after posting one last status update on Facebook: "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."
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At a courthouse news conference after the verdict, Clementi's father, Joe, addressed himself to college students and other young people, saying: "You're going to meet a lot of people in your life. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean you have to work against them."
Rutgers said in a statement: "This sad incident should make us all pause to recognize the importance of civility and mutual respect in the way we live, work and communicate with others."
Ravi shook his head faintly after hearing the verdict. He and his parents left the courthouse without comment, his father's arm around his shoulders.
His attorney Steven Altman issued a brief statement saying "everyone could rest assured that at the appropriate time an appeal will be filed."
Ravi's lawyers had argued at the trial that the college freshman was not motivated by any hostility toward gays and that his actions were just those of an immature "kid."
Rejected earlier plea bargain
In letting the case go to trial, Ravi gambled and may have lost big. Months ago, he and his lawyers rejected a plea bargain that would have spared him from prison, and prosecutors would have even helped him avoid deportation.
The most serious charges — bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, a hate crime — carry up to 10 years behind bars each. But legal experts said the most Ravi would probably get all together at sentencing May 21 would be 10 years.
Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi's death, and the suicide remained largely in the background at the trial, though some witnesses mentioned it and the jury was told Clementi had taken his life.
Prosecutors were not allowed to argue directly that the spying led to his death; defence lawyers were barred from saying there were other reasons he killed himself.
Each bias intimidation charge included five questions. A finding of guilty on any of them made Ravi guilty of the entire charge. The jury issued a split verdict on those subquestions.
It found, for example, that Ravi did not try to intimidate Clementi's romantic partner, identified in court only as M.B., and that Clementi reasonably believed Ravi was trying to intimidate him because of his sexual orientation. It split on questions of whether Ravi knowingly or willfully intimidated Clementi because of his sexuality.
String of suicides
Clementi's death was one in a string of suicides by young gays around the country in September 2010. President Barack Obama commented on it, as did talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case, and Rutgers changed its housing policies to allow people of the opposite sex to room together in an effort to make gay, bisexual and transgender students feel more comfortable.
Testimony came from about 30 witnesses over 12 days, including 32-year-old M.B. Ravi himself did not testify, though the jury watched a video of his interrogation by police.
Ravi and Clementi, both 18-year-old freshmen from comfortable New Jersey suburbs, had been randomly assigned to room together, and Clementi had arrived at college just a few days after coming out to his parents as gay.
A string of students testified they never heard Ravi say anything bad about gays in general or Clementi in particular. But students did say Ravi expressed some concern about sharing a room with a gay man.
On Sept. 19, according to testimony, Clementi asked Ravi to leave their room so that he could have a guest. Later, Ravi posted on Twitter: "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."
Ravi told police that he watched only seconds of the encounter via computer.
His friend Molly Wei testified that she and a few other students also watched the live stream of the men kissing. (Wei was initially charged in the case but was later accepted into a pretrial program that will allow her to keep her record clean.)
Two nights later, Clementi asked for the room alone again. This time, Ravi tweeted: "I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again." He also texted a friend about a planned "viewing party" and, two students said, went to friends' rooms to show them how to access the feed.
However, there was no evidence the webcam was turned on that night. Ravi told police he had put his computer to sleep. Prosecutors argued Clementi himself unplugged the computer.
According to testimony, Clementi submitted a room-change request form and talked to a resident assistant about what happened. He also used his laptop to view Ravi's Twitter site 38 times in the last two days of his life. He killed himself Sept. 22.