Jury selection was held in a New Brunswick, N.J., courtroom for the trial of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who with a silent flip of his laptop webcam secretly watched his roommate in a moment of gay intimacy, and unwittingly set in motion a series of events that would make him a national symbol of cyber-bullying.
The trial, which was broadcast live across the country and as far away as India, and culminated a criminal prosecution that many believe would never have happened if not for the fact that Tyler Clementi, Ravi's gay roommate, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010 -- just three days after Ravi electronically captured him kissing a man in his dorm room.
While authorities were only beginning their investigation, the media and public readily connected the dots, and Clementi's death struck a growing anti-bullying nerve in America and became a blog-driven lightening rod for outrage in the gay community.
Although the court of the public opinion condemned Ravi in the immediate aftermath of Tyler's death, two former New Jersey prosecutors say it will be a much more challenging case in the court of law.
"Pressure from gay rights groups, and global media attention made this case one that had to be prosecuted," former New Jersey prosecutor Robert Honecker said. "Yet the charges themselves are very difficult to prove."
Dahrun Ravi, now 19, faced up to 10 years in state prison if convicted on the multiple counts of invasion of privacy, witness tampering, hindering prosecution and bias intimidation.
He rejected a plea deal in December that would have allowed him to serve no jail time, but require him to perform 600 hours of community service and receive counseling. The state also assured Ravi, an Indian citizen, they would recommend to immigration officials that he not be deported.
"The fact that the prosecution offered this plea deal in the first place indicates that they are worried that they might have a tough time in court," said John Fahy, another former New Jersey prosecutor familiar with the case.
"Simple answer, simple principal. He's innocent. He's not guilty," defense attorney Steven Altman said. "That's why he rejected the plea."
The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office has declined to comment on any aspect of the case.
Tyler Clementi's and Dahrun Ravi's online conversations about one another
Only the bias charges - alleging Ravi's acts were intended to intimidate Tyler because of his sexual preference - carry a presumption of incarceration. And therein lies the heart of both the legal case and the cloud of extrajudicial scrutiny that surrounds it. The jury will be asked to go inside Ravi's mind and determine his motives.
In the final analysis, Fahy says, the trial boils down to a jury having to determine whether Ravi is "a malicious homophobe," as prosecutors contend, or merely "a dopey prankster," as his lawyer will likely portray him.
These critical bias counts may be the most difficult to prove, as court papers and expected witness testimony describe an increasingly complicated relationship between the two unlikely roommates.
In the late summer of 2010, Ravi received the name of his freshman roommate from Rutgers University. After his initial online search, Ravi told a friend on iChat, "He's the literal opposite of me."
Molly Wei's statement to police
There are nearly 150 people listed as potential witnesses, including more than 100 for the prosecution. First and foremost is Molly Wei.
Wei had known Ravi since grade school and reconnected with him when she saw his name in the hallway of her freshman dorm. During high school, she played volleyball and sang in the choir before enrolling in the six-year pharmacy program at Rutgers.
Her testimony will likely address Ravi's motivation for spying on Tyler on the night on September19. Molly Wei, 19, whose laptop Ravi allegedly used to watch the encounter, has agreed to testify against Ravi in exchange for admission into a first-time offenders program.
The other highly anticipated witness is the man identified only as M.B, a 25-year-old man whom Clementi met on an online hook-up site. According to one of Tyler's online exchanges, M.B. was not openly gay and worked two jobs at the time.
He lived off campus and was initially hesitant about the rendezvous in the freshman dormitory. But because of the expense and inconvenience of a hotel room rendezvous, they agreed to meet in Tyler's room.
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman has allowed the proceedings to be televised, but he has ordered the cameras to be removed from the courtroom when M.B. takes the stand, in order to protect his identity. And though M.B.'s full name appears on a questionnaire presented to prospective jurors, he has ordered them not to disclose that name to anyone.
Ravi is the oldest son of well-educated parents who immigrated to New Jersey from India when Ravi was a toddler. During high school, Ravi joined the ultimate frisbee team and frequently tinkered with the latest trends in technology, following in the footsteps of his father, who owns an information-technology company. Ravi is viewed by those who know him as incessantly social and boisterous.
Tyler, on the other hand, was a talented violinist, painfully quiet and extremely shy. He often wished he had more friends. While Ravi drove a BMW in high school, Tyler did not own a car. He grew up in a "very conservative, very religious family," according to his older brother James. Tyler's mother worked as a nurse and his father served as the director of public works in Hawthorne, N.J.
Tyler's other interests, which he mentioned in various online forums, include unicycling, computing, and photography.
Ravi and Tyler each formed simplistic impressions of the other online before they ever met in person.
Tyler had come out to his parents just three days before leaving for college in the fall of 2010. But he had long been active on gay online websites, including a pornographic site called Justforboys, where Ravi discovered a post from Tyler.
"Found out my roommate is gay," Ravi tweeted.
Tyler wrote his own friend on gChat, "I've started stalking my roommate..." and "I got an azn (Asian)."
He then forwarded a link to Ravi's Twitter account. Later, after meeting Ravi's Indian parents for the first time, Tyler messaged a friend "sooo Indian first gen americanish" and "defs owna dunkin" (Dunkin' Donuts).
Unlike Ravi, who spent much time outside of their room socializing, Tyler admits in his chats that he was a private person "wanting to be alone," and worried about being overheard playing his violin by his fellow freshman in the dorm: "It feels so awk to practice in the room ... like everyone in the whole building can hear me hehe."
He tells another friend, "I would die if I was forced to always have people around me." Tyler had recently opened up about his sexuality to both his family and classmates. He tells his online contact Sam Cruz: "I'm out to a whole bunch a people."
In July 2010, he came out to his older brother James and had told his parents just before leaving for college. Although his father accepted the news, Tyler perceived his mother's reaction very differently: "It's a good thing dad is ok w/it or I would be in serious trouble / mom has basically completely rejected me."
Other documents found on Tyler's computer indicate that Tyler also may have suffered from depression during this same period. Files entitled "Gah.docx," "sorry.docx," and "Why is everything so painful.docx," are dated from July through early September. But the judge will not permit any of these documents in court, since Ravi is not charged with Tyler's death.
Ravi's own ambivalent, and at times accepting, reaction to Tyler's sexual orientation further complicates the prosecution's case. "There are numerous indications that the defendant wasn't homophobic," Fahy said.
In various Internet chats, he told friends that "idc" (an abbreviation for "I don't care") and "Im not really angry or sad idc."
When his friend Tam replied, "What if he wants you, won't that get awk,"
Ravi replied, "Why would it be awk."
In another message he wrote, "FUCK MY LIFE / He's gay," but qualified himself moments later, "I'm just like LOL / Maybe I'm still a little buzzed."
Ravi also sent Tyler a substantial text message, apologizing for his webcam intrusion, on the night of his death: "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don't want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation."
Tension had risen between the roommates after Tyler brought a 25-year-old man who lived off campus into their shared dorm room. The two had connected via a hook-up site Adam4adam.
On Sept. 19, Tyler sent a text message to Ravi asking if he could use the room for the evening. Ravi agreed, but expressed skepticism to Molly Wei, a freshman living in the same dorm whom he'd known since grade school, about why his roommate needed the room. In her statement to police, Wei says Ravi worried that the man, only identified as M.B., might steal his iPad and seemed "really shady."
Wei, who was initially charged along with Ravi, has since agreed to cooperate with the state, testify against Ravi and avoid jail. Wei also promised to join an intervention program that requires her to perform 300 hours of community service over the next three years and undergo counseling for cyberbullying.
That night, Ravi used Wei's computer to access a webcam from his laptop that he had left in his own room.
At 9:13 p.m., Ravi activated a live unrecorded video image of his room while Wei sat nearby. Both saw Tyler and M.B. touching and kissing for a few seconds. Wei says in her statement: "I couldn't see any faces, and they were just what seemed to be kissing, and then, after literally two seconds, we just turned it off. And we were kind of both kind of in shock."
Four minutes later, Ravi tweeted, "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." Although Tyler may not have noticed the webcam that night, he did see Ravi's Twitter post the next day.
Yet his chats with friend Hannah Yang indicate that he was largely dismissive of the incident:
Yang: I would feel seriously violated
Tyler: like wtf [what] did he think was gonna happen?
Oh yah I gotcha
When I first read the tweet
I defs felt violated
When I rememberd what actually happened
Idk [I don't know]
Doesn't seem soooo bad lol
Yang: You guys really need to talk?
But its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything
He just like took a five sec peep lol
He also sought feedback from the online community at Justusboys.
"I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out .. and I'd probably just end up with somebody worse than him ... I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he's a pretty decent roommate," Tyler wrote in his post.
Tyler's mixed reaction to the incident and Ravi presents a critical obstacle for the prosecution.
"The fact that Clementi knew about the webcam incident and didn't seem to really care in his messages could make it hard to establish that he was intimidated," Fahy said.
After deliberating for more than a day and receiving additional encouragement from Yang, Tyler reported Ravi to their resident advisor and filled out the online request for a room change, citing how his roommate had spied on him with a webcam. Instead of leaving the room that day after his advisor offered him another place to sleep, however, Tyler arranged for another rendezvous in the dorm with M.B.
On Sept. 21, he sent Ravi a text: "Could I have the room again like 9:30 till midnight?" and received the reply, "Yeah no problem."
Ravi then tweeted twice about the rendezvous occurring in his room and texted a friend at Cornell, "people are having a viewing party."
Because Tyler was keeping tabs on Ravi's tweets, he intervened by unplugging the power strip for Ravi's computer and webcam, making any viewing impossible. Ravi would later claim in a statement that he had already dismantled the webcam.
The next morning, Tyler talked to his mother on the phone without mentioning anything unusual, and later attended his orchestra rehearsal.
That afternoon, Ravi and Tyler saw one another in their dorm room, but there is no indication that they exchanged words. Ravi does recall in his statement seeing Tyler "doing something by his desk," but police have not released the handwritten note found in the room.
Ravi left the room to meet with a friend, and returned to find that Tyler had gone. At 8:42 p.m., Tyler posted his last status update on Facebook, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
While Tyler's suicide has been deemed legally irrelevant to Ravi's trial, it nevertheless served as the catalyst for the subsequent investigation and prosecution. "It is only because of its association with the suicide, that this made it to court," Fahy said. "It shouldn't have happened."
On September 28, 2010, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei were each charged with two counts of invasion of privacy for the September 19 webcam transmission. Ravi was charged with two additional counts for the September 21 viewing attempt. On April 20, 2011, a Middlesex County grand jury indicted Ravi on 15 counts of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution.
On May 6, 2011, Wei entered a plea agreement allowing her to avoid prosecution in exchange for her testimony against Ravi, 300 hours of community service, counseling, and classes on dealing with people of alternative lifestyles.
On March 16, 2012, Ravi was convicted on all 15 counts for his role in the webcam spying incidents. On May 21, 2012, Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 3 years' probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine, and counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. Both the prosecutors and Ravi filed separate appeals. On June 18, 2012, Ravi was released from jail after 20 days of his sentence. Federal immigration authorities said that Ravi would not be deported to India.
In February 2016, Ravi asked the courts to overturn his convictions following a 2015 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that struck down as unconstitutionally vague a part of the law under which he was charged. In September 2016, the convictions were overturned by an appeals court in New Jersey, in a decision supported by prosecutors because of the earlier ruling on constitutionality. A request to maintain the convictions for other crimes, such as invasion of privacy and witness tampering, was denied because of the influence bias allegations. Ravi accepted a plea deal on October 27, 2016, and pleaded guilty to one count of attempted invasion of privacy, a third-degree felony. He was sentenced to time already served and fines paid, and the remaining charges against him were dropped.
One friend and high school classmate is quoted as saying: "Tyler was truly one of the sweetest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. He was always smiling and joking around in the classes we had together last year, and I feel so blessed to have spent time with him."
The band Rise Against released a song, Make It Stop (September's Children) , which mentions the names of Tyler Clementi and four other people who committed suicide in September 2010 after being bullied based on their sexual orientation.
Madonna gave tribute to Clementi by showing a picture of him during the Nobody Knows Me video interlude in the MDNA Tour. Canadian musician Owen Pallett released a song called "The Secret Seven" on his 2014 album In Conflict that addresses Clementi.
Monica Lewinsky said that Clementi's story inspired her to speak out against cyberbullying, in a TED talk called The Price of Shame .