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Jury gets case in Rutgers webcam spying trial

- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — After nearly two weeks of testimony, the case that kick-started national conversations about gay youths and Internet privacy went on Wednesday to a jury that must decide whether a former Rutgers University student is a criminal or just a young man who was confused by seeing two men kiss.

Dharun Ravi, now 20, is accused of viewing a few seconds of an intimate encounter between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man in the roommates' dormitory room at Rutgers and telling people about it in text messages and tweets and in person. He could face years in prison if convicted of charges including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime.

Jurors asked for a copy of the judge's instructions to them on Wednesday afternoon, after less than an hour of deliberations. Judge Glenn Berman said he didn't have a copy to give them but said he would answer specific questions if they had them. A bit later, they asked about one of the bias intimidation charges, wanting to know definitions of "intimidation" and "purpose."

Lawyers gave their summations Tuesday in the case, which has gotten enormous attention since the events of September 2010, when Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Mr. Ravi faces no charges related to Clementi's suicide.

Mr. Ravi could face deportation to India, where he was born and remains a citizen, if he's convicted. An expert said the risk of deportation is highest if he is convicted on the most serious charges.

Last year, prosecutors offered Mr. Ravi a plea bargain that called for no prison time — and help avoid deportation.

"The decision was made by his legal team to roll the dice," said Michael Wildes, a New York City immigration lawyer who is not involved in the case. "We'll see whether it was a good decision."

Mr. Wildes said immigration authorities could seek to have Mr. Ravi deported if he is convicted of any crime that lands him a prison sentence of a year or more.

In theory, all 15 of the charges he faces — among them are hindering apprehension, tampering with a witness and tampering with evidence — could result in prison time. But incarceration is likely only if he's convicted of one of the two second-degree bias intimidation charges he faces.

Mr. Wildes said the government also could seek to deport Mr. Ravi if he's convicted of a crime it considers to involve "moral turpitude," whether he's imprisoned for it or not. The list of those crimes is long, Mr. Wildes said.

Any deportation decision would have to be made by a federal immigration judge. And, Mr. Wildes said, Mr. Ravi could argue that his deportation would harm U.S. citizens or that he should remain in the country because he has lived here legally with his family since he was a young boy and because he has no prior criminal record.

As for the immigration help from state authorities, Mr. Wildes said such offers are usually "empty promises."

The trial, which included testimony from about 30 witnesses over 12 days in addition to the closing arguments, focused on a few days in the dorm where Mr. Ravi and Clementi, both 18-year-olds from well-off New Jersey suburbs, were randomly assigned to be first-year roommates.

Defense attorney Steven Altman told jurors that Mr. Ravi was surprised to turn on his webcam and see his roommate in an intimate situation with another man. He emphasized that there was no recording, no broadcast and no YouTube video of the Sept. 19, 2010, encounter.

And he said Mr. Ravi was not acting out of hatred of his roommate or gays in general when he saw the image from his webcam on the computer of another student.

"If there's hate in Dharun's heart, if there's ugliness in Dharun's heart, where's there some information and some evidence to support it?" Mr. Altman asked jurors.

Mr. Ravi tweeted and talked about what he saw, but Mr. Altman said Mr. Ravi was doing so only because he was young, had never before seen men kissing and did not know what to do. He had turned on the webcam in the first place, Mr. Altman said, because he was worried about what was happening in his room after seeing Clementi's guest, whom Mr. Ravi described as "older" and "sketchy."

His client, Mr. Altman said, was concerned about whether the stranger might take the iPad that Mr. Ravi had left in the room.

Julia McClure, a prosecutor for Middlesex County, reminded jurors of testimony from some of Mr. Ravi's high school friends that even before Mr. Ravi moved into the dorm, he was concerned about having a gay roommate.

"He was so shocked that within about four minutes, he sent out a tweet, because he was seeking advice?" Ms. McClure asked. And, she said, there was evidence that he then told other students about what he had seen and invited them to a friend's room where they could see for themselves.

The challenge for jurors could be deciding whether the laws apply to what Mr. Ravi is alleged to have done.

He faces 15 charges. Four are invasion of privacy and attempted invasion of privacy charges, in which the required proof is that he saw or disseminated images — or attempted to — of private parts or sex acts, or a situation in which someone might reasonably expect to see them.

Four charges allege bias intimidation. Mr. Ravi can be convicted of intimidation if he's also found guilty of an underlying invasion-of-privacy charge. Two of those charges are second-degree crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison — the most significant penalties he faces if convicted.

Seven charges accuse him of trying to cover his tracks. Among the allegations: that he deleted and changed Twitter postings and text messages and told another witness what to say.

Clementi's death was one in a string of suicides by young gays around the country in September 2010 and became probably the best known. President Obama commented on it in an online video, as did talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.

New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case, and Rutgers changed housing policies to allow opposite-sex roommates in an effort to make a more comfortable environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

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