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Experts say judge in Rutgers webcam suicide case has leeway in sentencing roommate


This news story was published on March 18, 2012.
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By Karen Sudol and Rebecca D. O’Brien, The Record (Hackensack N.J.) –

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Dharun Ravi rejected a plea offer just three months ago that would have kept him out of jail for spying on an intimate encounter his Rutgers roommate was having with another man.

Now the former Rutgers student from Plainsboro, N.J., could face at least five years in prison and deportation after being convicted Friday on each of the 15 counts leveled against him, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation — a hate crime.

But experts say there’s a chance that Ravi, 20, could avoid going to jail when sentenced on May 21. The family of Tyler Clementi, Ravi’s roommate, has said previously they didn’t believe a just outcome required the toughest penalties. And Ravi’s attorneys also plan to appeal the verdict, which means years could pass before the case is ultimately resolved.

“The judge has some ability to fashion a sentence that does not involve prison time,” said Henry Klingeman, a former federal prosecutor now based in Newark, N.J. “Everybody has a right to a trial, and the prosecutor should not penalize somebody for seeking that right. If the prosecutor agreed that the no jail resolution was fair before the trial, the facts are the same.”

The verdict, delivered before a packed yet silent courtroom, seemed to stun Ravi’s family as well as the Clementi family of Ridgewood, N.J. The two families have not acknowledged one another, even as they sat just feet apart for weeks in the Middlesex County courtroom. The landmark case has garnered international attention after Clementi committed suicide on Sept. 22, 2010. Clementi’s death prompted a national dialogue about anti-gay bullying and teenage suicide.

Regardless of whether Ravi goes to prison, Klingeman said, his life will never be the same.

“He’s going to be punished for the rest of his life,” he said. “It’s already beginning.”

The panel of seven women and five men who deliberated over three days was convinced that when Ravi watched his roommate and a male companion — identified only as M.B. — kissing via webcam, the intent was to intimidate Clementi because of his sexual orientation. The jury also found that Ravi later planned to view a second encounter and invited others to take a look, and that he tampered with evidence and a witness and hindered his own prosecution.

In doing so, they rejected attorney Steven Altman’s defense that Ravi was acting like a typical 18-year-old “kid” and didn’t know how to handle seeing two men kissing. Ravi had also told investigators that he used the webcam because he was worried that an older, shabby-looking M.B. would steal his iPad.

Ravi was found guilty of the following counts: two invasion of privacy, two attempted invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering and hindering apprehension. The jury convicted him on four bias intimidation counts as it applied to Clementi but didn’t find that Ravi intended to intimidate M.B.

As the verdict was read, Ravi’s parents showed no reaction, but their son appeared stricken as he sat quietly in his seat flanked by his defense attorneys. Clementi’s mother, Jane, was close to tears when the first guilty verdict was read. The jurors looked solemn and somewhat tired when they entered.

Afterward, Clementi’s family members hugged a court clerk; Ravi’s mother walked with her arm around her son as his family was whisked away from the courthouse by members of the Sheriff’s Office.

Altman later released a statement saying an appeal will be filed “challenging all of the issues that we raised before the trial and during the trial.”

Juror Bruno Ferreira spoke to the charges, saying the privacy invasion and tampering counts were the easiest to decide, while the bias intimidation counts proved the most difficult.

He said of both families: “I just hope they can put everything behind them, move forward and get closure.”

Another juror in the case, Kashad Leverett, agreed about the challenges deciding the case “because of the way the state presented the case and the way the defense fought back,” he said. “The hardest part was proving (Ravi) was guilty. Obviously, the evidence provided showed it.”

He said the panel was persuaded by the state’s exhibits of social media exchanges and that all members were respectful of one another when considering each count.

“Everybody in the jury room was somewhat, not sad, but we did take into consideration that we could find somebody guilty,” he said. “It’s not something we do in our everyday lives, have a judge tell you that you must decide if somebody is guilty. In a simple way, nobody was shouting, but we had to know what was at stake.”

Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan said the state was faced with unique challenges because they had to investigate without the benefit of Tyler Clementi’s assistance. Prosecutors also had to identify and analyze all of the social media tied to the case, he said.

It was the first time that the state’s bias intimidation law has been linked to invasion-of-privacy charges. The case could have an impact on the way young adults conduct themselves and interact online, how schools monitor Internet use, and on future criminal cases, legal experts and legislators have said.

“I think this sends a message that words matter, that actions matter and that the lack of respect for somebody based on any number of things is wrong and harmful, both personally and legally,” said state Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Woodbridge.

Vitale, who crafted the bias intimidation law a decade ago, also said he plans to modify the law in light of the case.

Contacted after the verdict, he said the law was properly applied by the jury even if Ravi’s circumstances might illuminate certain ambiguities in the statute.

“I think it’s always appropriate to look back at laws we write to see if they work and if they were properly applied,” Vitale said. “In this case, if the judge thinks it’s muddled … it’s worth it at the very least to look at the facts of the case, read the transcripts and see whether it was appropriately applied.”

If changes are made to the law, it could affect Ravi’s appeal. “The court in the Ravi case would have to take account of that,” Klingeman said. “But the Legislature will likely wait to allow the courts to really study this and come up with some suggestions.”

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