US webcam suicide case - student guilty

2012-03-17 18:13

kalahari.com

New Brunswick - A former US university student convicted in the webcam spying episode that ended in his gay room mate's suicide could be headed off to prison in a case experts say stands as a tragic lesson for young people about casual cruelties and unintended consequences in the internet age.

Indian-born Dharun Ravi, 20, shook his head slightly Friday after hearing guilty verdicts on all 15 counts against him, including invasion of privacy and anti-gay intimidation. He left the courthouse with his father's arm around his shoulders.

He could get up to 10 years in prison, by some estimates - and could be deported to India, even though he has lived legally in the US since he was a little boy - for an act that cast a spotlight on teen suicide and anti-gay bullying and illustrated the Internet's potential for tormenting others.

"They don't feel like they're spying. It's just their own iPhone they're using, their own laptop," said Annemarie McAvoy, an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School in New York. "Hopefully, parents will use this as an example for their children."

Prosecutors said Ravi set up a webcam in his dorm room in September 2010 and captured room mate Tyler Clementi kissing another man, then tweeted about it and excitedly tried to catch Clementi in the act again two days later. A half-dozen students were believed to have seen the live video of the kissing.

Within days, Clementi realised he had been watched and leaped from the George Washington Bridge, linking New York City and New Jersey, after posting one last status update on Facebook: "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."

At a courthouse news conference after the verdict, Clementi's father, Joe, addressed himself to college students and other young people, saying: "You're going to meet a lot of people in your life. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean you have to work against them."

Rutgers University said in a statement: "This sad incident should make us all pause to recognize the importance of civility and mutual respect in the way we live, work and communicate with others."

Ravi's attorney Steven Altman issued a brief statement saying "everyone could rest assured that at the appropriate time an appeal will be filed."

Rejected plea bargain

In letting the case go to trial, Ravi gambled and may have lost big. Months ago, he and his lawyers rejected a plea bargain that would have spared him from prison.

During the trial, Altman argued that Ravi was not motivated by any hostility toward gays and that his actions were just those of an immature "kid." The defence also contended Ravi initially set up the camera because he was afraid Clementi's older, "sketchy"-looking visitor might steal his belongings.

The most serious charges - bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, a hate crime - carry up to 10 years behind bars each. But legal experts said the most Ravi would probably get all together at sentencing May 21 would be 10 years.

The judge could also give him no prison time at all. Prosecutors said they would consult with Clementi's family and the other man in the video - identified as only as MB - before recommending a sentence.

Ravi was not charged with causing Clementi's death, and the suicide remained largely in the background at the trial, though some witnesses mentioned it and the jury was told Clementi had taken his life.

Some of the jurors said Ravi's tweets, especially one that "dared" friends to watch the webcast that never happened, were key evidence in convicting him of anti-gay intimidation.

"That post, what it said, struck a chord in all of us," said Ed Dolan, a finance manager.

Clementi's death was one in a string of suicides by young gays around the country in September 2010. President Barack Obama commented on it, as did talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

"The verdict today demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one's hand," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director of the gay rights organization Lambda Legal.

Expressed concern

Testimony included the 32-year-old MB, but Ravi himself did not testify. The jury watched a video of his interrogation by police.

Ravi and Clementi, both 18-year-olds, had been randomly assigned to room together, and Clementi had arrived at college just a few days after coming out to his parents as gay.

A string of students testified they never heard Ravi say anything bad about gays in general or Clementi in particular. But students did say Ravi expressed some concern about sharing a room with a gay man.

On September 19, according to testimony, Clementi asked Ravi to leave their room so that he could have a guest. Later, Ravi posted on Twitter: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Ravi told police that he watched only seconds of the encounter via computer.

His friend Molly Wei testified that she and a few other students also watched the live stream of the men kissing.

Two nights later, Clementi asked for the room alone again. This time, Ravi tweeted: "I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 21:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again." He also texted a friend about a planned "viewing party" and, two students said, went to friends' rooms to show them how to access the feed.

However, there was no evidence the webcam was turned on that night. Ravi told police he had put his computer to sleep. Prosecutors argued Clementi himself unplugged the computer.

According to testimony, Clementi submitted a room-change request form and talked to a resident assistant about what happened. He also used his laptop to view Ravi's Twitter site 38 times in the last two days of his life. He killed himself September 22.

- AP
Read more on:    us  |  gay rights  |  online privacy
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