NEW YORK – In a verdict that gay rights groups said should serve as a warning to homophobic bullies, a jury Friday convicted a former Rutgers University student of hate crimes, invasion of privacy and other charges for secretly filming his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, who subsequently committed suicide.
The defendant, Dharun Ravi, sat in silence and avoided eye contact with jurors as the word “guilty” sounded repeatedly through the New Brunswick, N.J., courtroom. He raised his eyebrows slightly at one point but otherwise maintained the poker face that stuck with him throughout the nearly two-week trial and testimony from about 30 witnesses, including several college friends.
Ravi, 20, was acquitted of some charges but convicted of most, including the most serious of bias intimidation, a hate crime that could bring a 10-year prison term. Ravi also could face deportation to his native India after completing his sentence, which was tentatively scheduled for May 21.
Reaction was swift from gay rights groups, who cited Clementi’s September 2010 suicide as an example of the failings of efforts to combat anti-gay bullying.
“We … believe this verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality said in a statement.
Juror Bruno Ferreira said the convictions on invasion of privacy, witness tampering, evidence tampering and other non-bias counts were not difficult to reach. Deciding on the hate-related charges of bias intimidation was more difficult because it required determining what motivated Ravi, he told reporters after the verdict, NJ.com reported. “You can’t know what someone’s thinking. You have to get inside their head,” Ferreira said.
In announcing the verdict, jurors made clear that they believed Ravi targeted Clementi because of his sexual orientation when he set up a webcam and secretly filmed Clementi and a male date in their dorm room on Sept. 19, 2010. Prosecutors said Ravi planned to film a second date that Clementi had with the man, identified only as M.B., two days later and have a “viewing party” for other students, but that Clementi learned of the spying and turned off the camera.
Clementi, who was portrayed as a talented, 18-year-old violinist who had come out to his parents a few days before starting college, threw himself into the Hudson River from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, after updating his Facebook status to read, “jumping off the gw bridge.”
Defense witnesses testified that Ravi never expressed anti-gay sentiments, and defense attorney Steven Altman said Ravi was guilty of a youthful indiscretion at most.
But one witness, Molly Wei, who with Ravi watched the first webcam images of Clementi and M.B., testified that Ravi appeared “shocked” by the sight of two men kissing.
Prosecutors used social media to bolster their case. They focused on Twitter messages that Ravi sent to other Rutgers students that mentioned his roommate’s dates with M.B. They also cited text messages that Wei and Ravi exchanged after Clementi’s suicide, which prosecutors said indicated Ravi was trying to cover his actions. Prosecutors also examined Clementi’s online activities and said his constant checking of Ravi’s Twitter account showed that Clementi feared humiliation at the hands of his roommate.