NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A prosecutor told jurors Friday that it was no mistake that a Rutgers student used a webcam to spy on his roommate’s intimate encounter with another man.
“The defendant’s acts were deliberately planned to invade Tyler’s privacy,” First Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure told jurors to open the hate crime trial of Dharun Ravi, “and to deprive him of his dignity.”
“They were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s private sexual activity,” she said.
Nineteen-year-old Ravi faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.
The case spurred a national conversation about how young gays are treated when news of it broke in September 2010 after Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide.
In her half-hour opening statement, McClure did not mention Clementi’s suicide.
Ravi’s lawyer was expected to give his opening statement later Friday morning, likely saying that Ravi meant no harm.
That’s a position McClure tried to dispel preventatively. “The defendant’s acts were not a prank, they were not an accident and they were not a mistake,” she said. “They were mean-spirited, they were malicious and they were criminal.”
She also said that Ravi began telling friends that he was unhappy he’d have a gay roommate soon after he received his Rutgers housing assignment in August 2010.
The case was so well known that it took four days to seat a jury of 16 – including four alternates. Just before opening statements, one more juror was excused after telling the judge that he needed to change an answer he’d given in a questionnaire. The judge didn’t offer any further explanation.
The trial is going forward because Ravi, 19, rejected a plea bargain offer that would have let him avoid any jail time and receive the state’s help if federal authorities tried to deport him to India, where he was born. Lawyer Steven Altman said the reason for not accepting the deal was simple: He’s not guilty of any crimes.
If the other man in the video is brought to the witness stand, his testimony could become a key part of the trial. He’s been identified publicly only by the initials M.B.
The trial is expected to last three to four weeks.
The main alleged crime happened just weeks after Clementi, a violinist from Ridgewood, and Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player from Plainsboro, moved into their dorm room at Rutgers.
Clementi’s parents said he told them he was gay in the days before he left for Rutgers. But court filings show that Ravi already knew that from Clementi’s web postings.
Authorities say Ravi used the webcam on his computer to check on Clementi when he’d asked to have the room to himself so he could have company.
Ravi posted a Twitter message about it: “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.”
Initially, another first-year Rutgers student, Molly Wei, of Princeton Junction, was also charged in the case. But she entered a pre-trial intervention program last year that allows her to avoid jail time and emerge without a criminal record if she meets a list of conditions for three years. She also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their case against Ravi.
Two nights after the first alleged spying incident, authorities say Ravi tried to do the same thing when Clementi asked him to stay away from the room again.
A day after that, Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge, leaving behind a terse Facebook status updated: “Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.”
The trial is expected to delve into text messages, tweets and online chats from Clementi and Ravi.