Guilty verdict in Rutgers webcam spying case

Posted at 12:35 PM, Mar 16, 2012
and last updated 2012-03-17 10:50:42-04
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 Friday of 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, was also found guilty of witness tampering, hindering apprehension and tampering with physical evidence, and could now face up to 10 years in jail and deportation to his native India.

Sentencing has been set for May 21.

The New Jersey jury was confronted with a series of questions on each charge after it asked for clarification on what constituted bias intimidation. 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, Ravi was convicted on all charges and 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 and 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 in an age of expanding social media.

"New Jersey enacted a law that said if you secretly record (someone engaged in an intimate act) 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 up to five years to 10 years behind bars.

Clementi's death stirred discussion about bullying, with President Barack Obama releasing a videotaped message condemning it. A few months later, New Jersey legislators enacted stricter laws to protect against bullying in schools.

"This haunting and awful case shows how much society has changed," said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin of Friday's verdict. "Even though he was not charged directly in connection with Clementi's suicide, that tragedy hung over the trial and undoubtedly played a major part in every aspect of the case."

After the verdict, Rutgers University released a statement saying, "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."

Prosecutors had argued that Ravi, who sat expressionless in the courtroom Friday, had tried to embarrass Clementi because he was gay and that his actions were motivated by a desire to intimidate the Ridgewood, New Jersey, native expressly 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 countered by saying 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 earlier this week. "He doesn't know anything about it. He just graduated high school."

After the verdict Friday, Altman said he would "prepare some type of press release" next week, but vowed to appeal the ruling.

"Right now I am just dealing with the emotions that everyone involved with the Ravi family and the defense experienced and continue to experience with the verdict," he said.

Though Ravi and Molly Wei -- a fellow student who admitted to joining Ravi to watch the surreptitious encounter that others were alerted to via social media -- were charged in the wake of Clementi's suicide, they were not 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 him 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 eventually had sex, he said.

Wei testified that she watched 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."

Then 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."

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 room change.

It is not clear whether Clementi ever viewed the messages before committing suicide.