- Associated Press - Thursday, February 23, 2012

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — It’s not just what a former Rutgers University student did or didn’t do that’s at issue in his trial on charges he used a webcam to spy on his roommate’s liaison with another man, just days before the roommate killed himself.

It’s also what he was thinking.

A jury is being selected and opening arguments could begin Friday in Dharun Ravi’s hate-crime trial, which could answer at least some of the questions about the circumstances of a death that sparked a national conversation about bullying on young gays and the emerging issue of cyberbullying.

The case gained widespread attention in September 2010 when Mr. Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, killed himself days after the intimate encounter. Experts following the case say that like many criminal cases, it seems more complicated than it did at first.

“One of the reasons the politicians jumped in so quickly is that there is a growing national concern over cyberbullying and harassment,” said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at New York’s Fordham University who studies online law. “This appeared on first blush to be a very crystalizing example. It became an opportunity for statements about the problem.”

** FILE ** Tyler Clementi hugs a student during his 2010 graduation from Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** Tyler Clementi hugs a student during his 2010 graduation ... more >

But, he said, New Jersey’s invasion-of-privacy laws don’t closely match what Mr. Ravi is accused of doing. And, he said, the legally important idea that he acted out of bias toward gays is not a slam-dunk for prosecutors, given the shards of evidence that have been made public so far.

During the month leading up to Clementi’s suicide, a number of other young gays who experienced bullying killed themselves. But it was the story of the Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman, that became a symbol of the problem, sparking the reaction of such leaders and celebrities as President Obama and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Mr. Reidenberg said that the issue of gay bullying needs to be addressed but that using this case as a prime example is a problem.

“It can be really harmful to the cause,” he said, “hanging so much on the Clementi case for cyberbullying and cyberharassment.”

Mr. Ravi, now 19, isn’t charged in connection with Clementi’s death. He is charged with invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, and tampering with a witness and evidence. The most serious charges are two counts of bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. To convict him on those counts, prosecutors will have to persuade a jury that Mr. Ravi sought to intimidate Clementi because he was gay.

“The question really before this jury really is whether this is a college prank that went horribly wrong or really a hate crime where the victim was targeted because of his sexual orientation,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal defense lawyer.

Court filings and interviews show that Clementi, a violinist from the New York City suburb of Ridgewood, N.J., told family members he was gay in the months before he moved into his dorm room at Rutgers‘ Davidson Hall in Piscataway — and that Mr. Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player and computer whiz from central New Jersey’s Plainsboro, found out from searching for information about his future roommate online.

Text and chat messages between each roommate and other friends show that the two were apprehensive of each other in those early weeks at Rutgers. They didn’t talk much, though they talked to friends about each other. Clementi said Mr. Ravi changed his clothes in an alcove out of his roommate’s view.

On Sept. 19, 2010, Clementi asked to have the room to himself for a few hours so he could have company, authorities said. Mr. Ravi, authorities say, accessed the webcam on the computer that he’d left in their shared room from the room of a friend across the hall. Mr. Ravi wrote on later Twitter: “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

All the evidence presented so far in court documents suggests that Mr. Ravi and a handful of other students viewed no more than seconds of the encounter and saw nothing more graphic than kissing. One other student, Molly Wei, was charged with invasion of privacy. She entered a pretrial intervention program last year that will allow her to avoid a criminal record if she complies with a list of conditions. She’s agreed to cooperate with the prosecution of Mr. Ravi.

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