Dharun Ravi Case Could Set Electronic Privacy Precedent
By CLIFF DUNN
NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — On March 16, a jury convicted a former Rutgers University student who used his Webcam to spy on his college roommate Tyler Clementi’s intimate encounter with another man. Dharun Ravi, 20, was convicted of all 15 counts including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy, which is considered a sex crime in New Jersey. Yet, to members of the jury, the impact of Clementi’s own Twitter notes and on-line behavior presented the most damning evidence in the case.
“It was pretty hard to think about Tyler, because he wasn’t present to give his thoughts,” juror Kashad Leverett, 20, said after the trial. Quoted in the New York Times, Leverett added, “..in the evidence that was provided, it showed that he believed he was being intimidated because of his sexual orientation.”
The trial sent a cautionary message to all those who use Twitter and other social media sites that there are consequences, sometimes dire ones, in the use of technology. “This should be a cautionary tale for a lot of people….You often don’t think that what you’re doing could lead to criminal prosecution,” said Eric Nemecek, co-chair of the AmericanBar Association’s Criminal Justice Cybercrime Committee, reported in USA Today.
This case could set a precedent, impacting constitutional rights to privacy. “[People] aren’t going to be exempt from liability just because they are hiding behind a Twitter handle,” according to John Verdi of the Electronic Public Information Center.
“While the law was used appropriately in this particular case, we must be careful—as a society—to not give the government broad power to censor filming of individuals or events,” he said. “Any such laws have the potential to be misused by the government to squelch discourse on matters of public concern.” Ravi—who was 18 years old at the time–set up a Web camera on Sept. 19, 2010, after his roommate, Tyler Clementi, requested privacy in their room for several hours that night. Unbeknownst to Clementi at the time, Ravi and a female friend had watched the encounter.
Ravi then 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].” Subsequently, Ravi sent Twitter and text messages to encourage others to watch. Clementi, 18, jumped from the George Washington Bridge three days after the Webcam viewing, on Sept. 22, 2010–barely three weeks into the men’s freshman year. During the trial, Clementi’s death was only mentioned in passing, but his suicide was the central, defining issue of the proceeding, altering what might have been—in the words of the dormitory’s resident assistant—“a roommate issue,” or at worst, a peeping Tom case, into something with far more ruinous consequences for both men.
Judge Glenn Berman took more than an hour to instruct jurors on the criteria to render a verdict. Following 13 days of testimony spread over a three-week period, the jury, which consisted of seven women and five men, deliberated for 13 hours before finding Ravi guilty of all charges.
Over the 13 days of testimony, prosecutors pointed to Clementi’s checking Ravi’s Twitter feed 38 times after he learned of his roommate’s first Webcam viewing on Sept. 19, 2010. Following that first incident, Ravi told others that he had witnessed Clementi “kissing a dude.” The dorm’s resident assistant testified that Clementi had complained to him about Ravi’s conduct, and computer records show that Clementi had gone online to request a room reassignment.
The jurors found Ravi guilty of bias intimidation because Clementi “reasonably believed” he was made a target because of his sexuality. He was likewise found guilty of lying to investigators, trying to influence a witness, and tampering with evidence after attempting to cover up his text and Twitter messages inviting others to watch.
Some of the counts again Ravi mandate a 5 to 10 year prison sentence. Ravi, who is originally from India, has surrendered his passport. He faces possible deportation to his native country, a decision that will be made by immigration officials. Ravi’s criminal sentencing has been scheduled for May 21. From the outset, the case has been seen as having the potential to redefine how society views hate crimes and the proper way to punish bullying behavior. Some legal experts and Ravi’s own attorneys argued that the trial was an attempt to criminalize bad teenaged behavior.
Middlesex County, New Jersey prosecutor Bruce Kaplan told reporters that the trial sent a strong message against bullying and in support of victims. “They felt the pain of Tyler,” Kaplan said of the jurors. Ravi had rejected plea deals, because his lawyers said he did not believe he had committed a hate crime, for which a plea would have required his admission. They argued that Ravi was “a kid” with little personal experience of gay people.
Almost none of the facts in the case were disputed. The defense stipulated to the prosecution’s contention that Ravi had set up a Web cam, and had viewed Clementi kissing a man whom he had met weeks earlier on a gay dating Web site.
Electronic evidence had established an enormous chain of damning evidence: dining hall swipe card and cellphone records, Twitter feeds, dorm surveillance cameras, and a “net flow analysis” that recreated the connections between various computers in the dormitory. His lawyers also acknowledged that Ravi sent messages via text and Twitter that enjoined others to watch Clementi and his male visitor two nights after the first encounter, and deleted those messages after Clementi’s suicide.
In the end, the jury decided that “boys will be boys” was an inadequate defense. One juror, Bruno Ferreira, told reporters after the verdict was read that he had voted guilty on the charge of bias intimidation because of Ravi’s multiple-tweet harassment of Clementi. “They were being done twice, not just one day,” Ferreira said.
Following the verdict, Tyler’s father, Joe Clementi, who attended the trial every day with his wife, Jane, described the “painful” experience of listening for three weeks to the “bad and inappropriate things that were done to their child.”
To teenagers everywhere, Joe Clementi offered words of tolerance, encouragement, and warning: “You’re going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean you have to work against them. When you see somebody doing something wrong, tell them: ‘That’s not right. Stop it.’ The change you want to see in the world begins with you.”