Rutgers student lost his dice roll

Annemarie McAvoy in The Philadephia Inquirer, March 18, 2012

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Dharun Ravi, a promising college student and computer whiz kid, gambled his future on a Middlesex County jury.

It appears he lost.

The 20-year-old Plainsboro, N.J., resident was convicted of all 15 counts Friday in the Rutgers University webcam spying case, which generated international attention and became a rallying point for gay-rights advocates concerned about the bullying and harassment of gay teens.

Ravi was found guilty of invasion of privacy and bias-intimidation charges for using his laptop webcam to spy on his roommate in an intimate encounter with another man on Sept. 19, 2010. And he was found guilty of trying to do it again on Sept. 21.

The roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, committed suicide Sept. 22 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

While Clementi's death was not part of the case against Ravi, "it hung like a long shadow over the courtroom," according to a gay-rights activist who attended several sessions of the three-week trial in New Brunswick.

Now Ravi, who could have taken a plea deal last year that would have resulted in no jail time, six months' probation, and 600 hours of community service, faces a possible 10-year prison term for his conviction on four bias-intimidation, or hate-crime, charges.

'You hope ...'
He also was convicted of invasion of privacy, attempted invasion of privacy, hindering prosecution, tampering with evidence, and tampering with a witness.

The Indian native, who came to the United States with his parents as a child, could be deported.

"He rolled the dice," said Annemarie P. McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School.

"It's an unfortunate reality of the system: You hope your day in court brings you what you perceive as justice, but it doesn't always happen."

When Ravi rejected the plea offer in December, his lead attorney, Steven Altman, said he did so for a simple reason: He was innocent. Altman returned to that theme again and again during the trial, insisting that none of Ravi's actions were intended to humiliate or harass Clementi for his sexual orientation.

McAvoy questioned the bifurcated jury verdict, which indicated that the panel believed Ravi did not intend to harass Clementi, but that the shy violinist - who had recently come out to his family - perceived his roommate's actions that way.

It was a "murky and confusing" verdict, and one that gives Ravi's lawyers a legitimate issue to raise on appeal, she said.

Sentencing is set for May 21 before Judge Glenn Berman, who presided over the trial.

The case sparked a national conversation about the difficulties faced by gay teenagers. It also raised questions about privacy rights in the cyber age.

"The fundamental question in this trial was whether Dharun Ravi would have similarly invaded the privacy of a roommate having intimate relations with someone of the opposite sex," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights advocacy group. "In our view, the answer is no."

"The verdict . . . demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one's hands," added Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director for Lambda Legal, which focuses on civil rights issues for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals.

Former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz, now in private practice, said the decision should "serve as a cautionary tale as to the serious consequences of reckless behavior in the age of technology."

Mintz was one of several legal experts to release prepared statements on the Internet after the verdict.

Others cautioned that the jury's decision, like the charges themselves, may have been an overraction to the media furor the case generated.

Bill Dobbs, a gay-rights activist and civil libertarian from New York, was critical of gay-rights groups that, he argued, had made more of the case than the evidence warranted.

Dobbs, who has written about the trial in several publications, including an op-ed piece in the New York Times, said he was concerned about a "rush to judgment" fueled, in part, by an "overzealous" prosecution. Authorities, he said, overreacted to gay-rights groups that had made the case a cause based on Clementi's suicide rather than Ravi's action.

That suicide, he said, "cast a long shadow . . . over the courtroom."

The verdict underscores the problems with New Jersey's bias-intimidation laws, which let the jury find Ravi guilty not because of what he did, but on Clementi's presumed interpretation of the actions, McAvoy argued.

"The jury appeared to find that Ravi's intentions were not out of hatred or bias," McAvoy said. "But the jurors believed Tyler Clementi perceived them as such. . . . It's an outrageous standard."

In the four bias-intimidation counts, Ravi was convicted of conduct that caused Clementi to be intimidated and to believe "that he was selected to be the target of the offense because of sexual orientation."

But under each count, the jury rejected arguments that Ravi set out to invade Clementi's privacy "with the purpose" of intimidating him. Ravi was found not guilty of that aspect of the charge.

A strict standard
There are important constitutional questions, McAvoy said, about a law that allowed a jury to consider an alleged victim's "perception" of intent. She asked rhetorically how that might apply in a case in which a victim has been diagnosed as paranoid.

"I think it's . . . an unbelievable standard," she said.

She and others also pointed to technology issues in the case.

Erroneous police reports, according to trial testimony, initially claimed that Ravi had videotaped and broadcast Clementi in a sex act with a man.

In fact, testimony indicated, no more than six students briefly viewed a live-streamed iChat of Clementi and the man kissing. They looked for "a few seconds," the students told the jury.

McAvoy and Dobbs argued that Ravi faced criminal charges that never would have been brought had Clementi not taken his own life.

"It's not a happy ending for anybody," said William J. Matthews, president of the Rutgers University Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian & Transgender Alumni Association.

"If we lived in a better, brighter world, none of this would have happened. . . . I would hesitate to use the word justice here. It was a difficult case."