PHOTO Courtesy MSNBC
By Cliff Dunn
The man who reportedly engaged in intimate contact with a Rutgers University student who subsequently killed himself–after footage of the encounter was made public–gave a sworn account last week in which he testified having noticed a Webcam pointed in their direction during their encounter. The student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in September 2010.
“I had just glanced over my shoulder and I noticed there was a webcam that was faced toward the direction of the bed,” the man, who has been identified only by the initials “M.B.,” testified. “It just struck me as strange, that if you were sitting at a desk, that the camera would be pointed that way.”
“Just being in a compromising position and seeing a camera lens – it just stuck out to me.’’ M.B. also recalled not seeing an activated indicator light denoting that the cam was turned on. His testimony was the most anticipated in the trial of Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate, who is charged with bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and other crimes.
Ravi is not charged in connection with Clementi’s death.
M.B., the prosecution’s star witness, testified that he and Clementi, 18, first met in August 2010 via a gay men’s social networking site. The man, who said he was 30 years old at the time, met Clementi in the latter’s Rutgers’ dorm room on Sept. 17, two days before the alleged Webcam spying occurred.
The media was ordered by the judge to neither photograph nor record via audio or video any part of M.B.’s testimony. The man’s attorney successfully fought legal efforts to identify M.B., on the grounds that’s he may be the victim of an alleged sex crime, which New Jersey classifies invasion of privacy. M.B.’s real name was given to the jurors in order to make sure none of them knew him personally.
Although M.B.’s testimony carried both emotional and anecdotal weight, it did little to bring to light the reasons Tyler Clementi may have killed himself. In text messages between Clementi and M.B.—who was listed as “Mike Nice” in the former’s cellphone address book—the Rutgers students projects the image of an emotionally-engaged and newly infatuated teenager.
The attorney for M.B., Richard Pompelio, spoke with reporters during a break in testimony. Pompelio said he doesn’t believe that M.B. is married and doesn’t know if his client is out as a gay man. “He’s a fine young man who came here under horrible circumstances to tell the truth,” said Pompelio.
M.B. testified that he lived approximately 20 minutes from Clementi and Rutgers. He said that he and Clementi met a total of three times in the latter’s dorm room. The shortest of their dates lasted for approximately 45 minutes, while the longest took place for about two hours. The first encounter took place on Sept. 17, when Ravi was not expected until late at night, M.B. recollected. The man said in court that he left Clementi long before Ravi’s return. “I made sure to leave well before 2 a.m. as to not cause any conflict,’’ he recounted.
The second meeting took place on Sept. 19, the date of the alleged Webcam incident. On that evening, 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 another dude. Yay [sic].”
In court, M.B. testified that about a half dozen students were in the vicinity as he left the dormitory that night. “There were no thoughts that somebody might be watching me,” he said under oath. “If I saw a light on [the Webcam], maybe I would have brought it up. There was no light on,” M.B. insisted.
In order to prove the criminal charges of bias intimidation, prosecutors must prove that Ravi intimidated Clementi specifically because he was gay. That charge has been refuted by several of the prosecution’s own witnesses.
Even the fact that M.B. was not aware that the Webcam had been activated for a few seconds—or was even capable of being activated– and that he was unaware of the roommate’s Twitter messages about the romantic encounters will make it difficult for prosecutors to attribute intimidation to Ravi’s motives.
Last week, prosecutors presented several witnesses who confirmed that they had seen Clementi and M.B. kissing that night via Ravi’s Webcam feed.
Clementi and M.B. met for the third and final time on Sept. 21 in Clementi’s dorm room. M.B. testified that he had heard voices through the window, “talking in the courtyard–people joking, people laughing. It seemed like the jokes were at somebody else’s expense.”
Because of hearsay rules, the judge would not permit M.B. to describe how Clementi’s reaction to the derisive laughter. And since M.B. did not look out the dorm room window (thus preventing him from identifying the individuals who were laughing) and could not testify to the content of the jokes, his testimony cannot link Ravi to the charges of bias intimidation.
The defense has portrayed Ravi as insensitive, but not biased against Clementi’s sexuality. His attorneys are painting a picture of the normal social awkwardness associated with the freshman experience between two unfamiliar roommates.
Ravi, a native of India, was an outgoing, Ultimate Frisbee-playing techie from an upper middle class suburb of Princeton. Clementi, an accomplished violinist, was socially awkward and had only recently come out to his parents.
Friends of the defendant confirmed that he had set up the Webcam in his and Clementi’s room, and that Ravi appeared to be “uncomfortable” about being assigned a gay roommate. After Clementi and M.B.’s initial encounter, Ravi allegedly utilized a friend’s computer to test his own Webcam, in order to capture a better angle on Clementi’s bed in the hours before the gay teen brought his male guest over a second time.
Lokesh Ojha, another student residing in the same dormitory, testified that Ravi approached him for assistance. “He wanted to use my computer,” Ojha recalled during testimony. “He picked my iChat and he clicked his video and a video of his room came up.” According to Ojha, Ravi “went to his room and he told me to check the angle on his webcam.”
“I went to the computer and he went to his room and he turned his computer screen, and I gave him a ‘thumbs up’ that it was okay,” Ojha recalled. On Sept. 21, two days after M.B.’s second date with Clementi, Ravi sent another Twitter post: “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” Students testified that when Clementi learned of Ravi’s Webcam plan, he disconnected it.
In cross-examination, the defense grilled M.B. as to the reasons he and Clementi chose to meet in the latter’s dorm room, rather than a more public location, and why M.B. hadn’t spent the night. “I didn’t want to cause any type of conflict between [the roommates],” M.B. offered. “I left happy. He was happy,” he described his last encounter
At approximately 8:42 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010, Clementi posted on Facebook: “Going to jump off the gw bridge sorry.” Authorities say that later that evening, Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge.
M.B. testified that when he did not hear from the Rutgers student, he sent text messages to Clementi “twice a day every day.” He learned of the teen’s death after reading a print account of his suicide. “I didn’t know it until I picked up a newspaper,” M.B. said.
Court records indicate that shortly after Clementi’s final Facebook update, at around 8:46 p.m., Ravi texted his roommate to offer an explanation for the Webcam feed and an apology. Minutes later, at 8:56 p.m., Ravi sent a final text to Clementi: “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it,” it read. “I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, its adding to my guilt. You have the right to move if you wish but don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully under-standing the situation.”