A former student faces up to 10 years behind bars after being found guilty of a hate crime for cyber-snooping on his gay roommate who later jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in New York.
A New Jersey jury sided today with prosecutors concluding that the defendant, 20-year-old Dharun Ravi, had invaded the privacy of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, at a Rutgers University dormitory in September 2010, when he live-streamed a homosexual encounter between him and a visitor using a web-camera on his computer. Jurors also accepted one charge that Ravi had been motivated by a bias against gays.
Cyber-bullying of gays and other minorities represents relatively uncharted territory for prosecutors but is becoming increasingly high profile and yesterday’s verdicts will set an important legal precedent. It will also send a message about the dangers of posting private material on social media and elsewhere online.
“If you engage in cyber-bullying by broadcasting this kind of information you are facing very serious jail time,” former federal prosecutor, Paul Callon, told CNN.
Ravi was a first-year student at Rutgers when he was randomly assigned to share a room with Clementi, a much shyer person and an accomplished violinist. Clementi, who had come out as a gay to his parents weeks earlier, asked one evening early in the term if he could have the room to himself for a few hours.
The facts of what happened next were not disputed by the defence. Ravi angled his webcam to capture what might happen between Clementi and his visitor, a 32-year-old who testified at the trial. When they kissed, Ravi and some others watched on a monitor in another room. He also advertised what he saw on Twitter.
He returned to Twitter when Clementi asked to be alone again two nights later.
“I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again,” Ravi tweeted. He also texted a friend about a ‘viewing party’ he would hold. The second encounter never happened. Clementi had seemingly realised what had happened after reading Ravi’s tweet messages. Before committing suicide in September 2010, he posted a farewell on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.” The George Washington Bridge links New York City to New Jersey.
The death of Clementi, which coincided with a rash of suicides by teen gays across America that drew comment from President Barack Obama, did not feature in the charges against Ravi and only came up incidentally in the trial. The most important charge, however, was of ‘bias intimidation’, implying that homophobia had been a motivation for Ravi and that Clementi had himself felt intimidated because he was gay.
While the jury rejected some sub-charges of bias intimidation, they convicted Ravi on one overarching charge. That one verdict alone stands to double his prison time. Ravi, who was largely expressionless during the reading of the verdicts, is set to be sentenced on 20 May.
While friends and family of Ravi were seated on one side of the courtroom, the family of Mr Clementi were on the other. His father, Joe, addressed himself to college students and other young people in a press conference after the verdicts. “You’re going to meet a lot of people in your life. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean you have to work against them.”
Rutgers said in a statement: “This sad incident should make us all pause to recognise the importance of civility and mutual respect in the way we live, work and communicate with others.”