Nancy Solomon, Managing Editor, New Jersey Public Radio
Nancy Solomon is the Managing Editor of New Jersey Public Radio.
The reading of racy texts and details about the night students crowded around a computer in a college dorm room to see Tyler Clementi kiss a man were part of the first day of testimony in the Rutgers webcam spying case.
Opening statements began Friday in the trial of Dharun Ravi, 19, who faces 15 criminal counts — including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and hindering an investigation — in connection to two incidents in September 2010 when he allegedly remotely turned on the webcam of his computer while his roommate, Tyler Clementi, was having an intimate encounter with a man.
Clementi complained to the university when he realized what had happened and committed suicide days later.
All the testimony came from college students who knew Ravi to various degrees. One witness, Cassandra Cicco, was among a group of four students who were invited into a dorm room to see what the webcam was capturing of Clementi’s encounter.
She said the students talked more about the fact that the unidentified man with Clementi was so old, rather than the two of them being gay.
“He was old, but not obscenely old,” Cicco said.
A friend of Ravi’s said the two talked after the incident and that Ravi said he was uncomfortable with Clementi using the dorm room for sex with a man and that he didn’t know what to do about it.
The testimony followed opening statements, first by the prosecutor who told the jury Ravi wanted to "brand" his roommate as an outsider because he was gay.
“It was not a prank,” Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure said Friday. “It was mean spirited, it was malicious and it was criminal.”
But the defense described the events of September 2010 as just the acts of an immature kid who was uncomfortable but not hateful.
“He might be stupid at times, but he’s certainly not a criminal. He’s an 18 year old boy,” the attorney said.
The prosecution called a friend of Ravi’s who received an instant message from him about the first webcam incident. Ravi wrote “I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam and saw my roommate kissing a dude.”
The friend, Austin Chang, replied with “ewww…wtf.”
The prosecution also detailed how Ravi deleted emails and tweets he sent after he was contacted by police officers. McClure calls it “calculated” because Ravi changed and sent out new tweets meant to change his original invitation for people to watch his iChat stream on the night Clementi was with the man.
"The defendant’s acts were deliberately planned to invade Tyler’s privacy, deprive him of that privacy and deprive him of his dignity," McClure told the jury in the final sentence of her opening statement "And that’s why we’re here."
Defense attorney Steve Altman opened his case by telling the jury the prosecution's comments are out of context. When Ravi looked up his new roommate on the internet — something every college kid does — he found his email address on a gay website.
"He did what an 18-year-old boy who’d just graduated high school is gonna do – he’s gonna say, 'Aw nuts,'" he said. "He's not hateful. He's not a bigot. ... In fact, Dharun never intimidated. He's not homophobic. He's not anti-gay. He never recorded any image of his roommate. ... There was no bullying."
The case is being watched closely because it raises questions about how to define teen-age bullying in the internet age and whether hate crime laws should be applied when there is no act of violence.
Clementi's death touched off national conversations about the bullying of young gays and cyberbullying.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
With the Associated Press