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Defense in Rutgers bias case faces daunting task

By Karen Sudol, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Prosecutors in Dharun Ravi’s bias intimidation trial have methodically built a brick-by-brick case over the past 10 days, producing two dozen increasingly damaging witnesses and ending with a video of Ravi admitting that he invaded the privacy of his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi.

Friday it’s the defense’s turn.

Ravi’s attorneys, Steven Altman and Philip Nettl, face a potential uphill battle when presenting their defense, given that the state’s case has unfolded like a novel, with Ravi as the main character. Their goal will be to plant a seed of reasonable doubt with the jurors, one that perhaps showcases Ravi as an immature college kid who didn’t realize the consequences of his actions.

“The question is, did he intend and actually commit a crime?” said Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor who has also served as Englewood, N.J., mayor. “This is what a jury will have to decide.”

Ravi has been defined by the state as anti-gay and manipulative, someone who plotted to humiliate Clementi by using a webcam to spy on his tryst with another man. Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge just days after his first encounter was streamed live.

The plot has developed slowly, giving jurors time to reflect, as witness after witness testified that Ravi used Twitter to encourage others to view a second Clementi tryst, poking holes in the defense’s contention that the webcam was being used to safeguard Ravi’s iPad.

There was dorm mate Molly Wei, who said that Ravi set up the webcam that streamed the first encounter that was viewed in her room. Then came Rutgers student Lokesh Ojha, who testified that he helped Ravi aim the camera toward Clementi’s bed. Rutgers police said that Ravi withheld information as they conducted a search for Clementi, before they knew his fate.

Clementi’s companion, cloaked in mystery and identified only as M.B., testified that he had sex with Clementi on two dates — and saw the webcam and felt students were staring as he left the dorm room one night. A “viewing party with a bottle of Bacardi and beer” was also discussed on the stand.

Technology provided an unexpected twist, showing that Ravi deleted dozens of texts between himself and two other students. And a review of Clementi’s online accounts revealed that he had repeatedly checked Ravi’s Twitter page in the days and hours before he jumped to his death.

A video of Ravi’s interview with investigators provided a fitting conclusion to the prosecution’s case, letting jurors hear and see Ravi admit that he invaded Clementi’s privacy, but “didn’t realize it was something so private.”

While the defense is expected to last for two days, it’s still not known if Ravi, of Plainsboro, N.J., will testify. If he does, it would likely be on Monday.

Ravi, 20, faces multiple counts of invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension and bias intimidation — a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors say Ravi intended to intimidate Clementi because he was gay.

A glimpse of Altman’s plan of attack was revealed Thursday when he told the judge he would call character witnesses and Rutgers students to the stand. Also expected are a Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office investigator and a Rutgers detective.

The defense also argued for the dismissal of some of the charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation counts. The judge later told the attorneys to assume that the charges would all stand but he would review his notes overnight and could revisit several of the counts.

In order to prove the bias intimidation counts, prosecutors must show that Ravi intimidated Clementi because of his sexual orientation. In the invasion-of-privacy charges, they have to demonstrate that Ravi set out to expose sexual conduct without permission.

Among Nettl’s arguments were that Ravi didn’t invade Clementi’s privacy because he had a right to view the contents of his room regardless of what was happening in it. Another was that the state hadn’t shown any evidence that Clementi was intimidated or put in fear because of Ravi’s actions — an element of bias intimidation.

Altman and Nettl could call witnesses to show that Ravi was not homophobic and never intended to humiliate or embarrass Clementi. Altman has maintained that Ravi set up the camera because he was worried his iPad would be taken by M.B. — which is what Ravi told investigators during his Sept. 23 police interview.

Chris Leibig, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal defense attorney of 16 years who has been following the case, said while the defense has a big burden, it would do well to “humanize Mr. Ravi and make obvious that this was not his intention and that he didn’t harbor any specific anti-gay bias.

“They need to build on the fact that, yes, he acted like an immature jerk, but this is not a criminal case,” he said.

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