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Standard of Proof in Question at Trial Related to Rutgers Student’s Suicide

February 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Opening statements began Friday in the trial of Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers student charged with using a webcam to spy on his roommate, who later killed himself, during a physical encounter with another man. Ray Suarez, The Associated Press' Geoff Mulvihill and Slate's Emily Bazelon discuss the trial's standard of proof.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The criminal case linked to the suicide of a gay student at Rutgers University got under way today.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: This was the day for opening statements in the trial of Dharun Ravi. Prosecutors went first in a courtroom in New Brunswick, N.J.

JULIA MCCLURE, assistant prosecutor, Middlesex County, New Jersey: This isn’t about Dharun Ravi having to like Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation or having to like the nature of his private sexual activity. But it is about having the decency to respect it and to respect Tyler’s dignity and privacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the fall of 2010, Ravi shared a freshman dorm room with Tyler Clementi, whom he knew to be gay. Ravi allegedly used a Webcam to spy on one of Clementi’s physical encounters.

Prosecutors say he also posted about it on Twitter and invited others to watch via video chat. On Sept. 22, Clementi killed himself by jumping off New York’s George Washington Bridge. The suicide sent Rutgers into mourning and set off a national debate about homophobia and cyber-bullying.

DR. JEFFREY LIEBERMAN, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University: So, the tools of the Internet enabled this cruel or sadistic behavior to be amplified and publicized, not just on the campus, but throughout the world. And that really contributed to the extreme emotional reaction that the student had and his impulsive decision to take his life.

RAY SUAREZ: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called it an unspeakable tragedy.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), New Jersey: And those people who helped to lead him to that bridge are going to have to bear that responsibility for the rest of their lives.

RAY SUAREZ: Ravi wasn’t charged directly in Clementi’s death, but he is accused of invading privacy, tampering with evidence and, most seriously, bias intimidation, a hate crime under state law.

Now, though, there are growing questions about the accuracy of initial reports on the case. They were crystallized in a New Yorker article this month by Ian Parker. “It became widely understood,” Parker wrote, “that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”

Dharun Ravi’s defense attorney made many of the same points today, as he challenged the prosecutors claim of malice and homophobia.

STEVEN ALTMAN, defense attorney for Dharun Ravi: I can’t stand here and tell you Dharun didn’t act like a boy or at times childish and immature. Just because we do something stupid, we make mistakes, especially when we’re young, it doesn’t mean we’re hateful or we’re bigoted or we’re criminal.

RAY SUAREZ: The trial is expected to last about a month. If convicted on all counts, Ravi could get at least 10 years in prison.

We take a closer look at the case now with Geoff Mulvihill of the Associated Press. He’s been covering the story and was in court today. And Emily Bazelon, senior editor for the online magazine “Slate,” she’s also a research fellow at Yale Law School and is currently working on a book about bullying called “Sticks and Stones.”

Geoff Mulvihill, let me start with you.

Today offered the first chance for both sides to define Dharun Ravi to the jury. Tell us more about the different portraits of this young man that were offered in the opening statements.

GEOFF MULVIHILL, The Associated Press: Sure.

The prosecutors portrayed him as being mean-spirited and criminal, whereas his defense lawyer tried to build the case that maybe he was stupid in the way he acted, but he’s acting like an 18-year-old. He kept referring to him as a boy during opening statements. And he used some student witnesses to emphasize that Ravi didn’t have a problem with gays generally.

RAY SUAREZ: To prove bias intimidation, one of the counts New Jersey has brought against Dharun Ravi, do they not only have to prove that he bullied Tyler Clementi, but did it because he was gay?

GEOFF MULVIHILL: That’s right. That’s what the standard of proof is for this crime. It seems like that’s the big challenge.

And that was really the issue that both sides were working on in court, was the prosecutors were doing all they could to show that he was anti-gay. And defense lawyers were trying to get witnesses to say that he wasn’t.

RAY SUAREZ: This is a case that, of course, got not only national, but intense local attention. Was the courtroom full today, and who was there? Students? Family members of all the principals?

GEOFF MULVIHILL: Well, the family members of both Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi were present. It was a packed courtroom mostly because of the media, however.

RAY SUAREZ: And did anybody talk after today’s — today’s court session broke up, or is it still early days?

GEOFF MULVIHILL: It’s still early on. Both sides seem to be letting what happens in the courtroom doing the talking — do the talking for them.

RAY SUAREZ: Emily Bazelon, let me start — let me turn to you.

Does this case and the series of events that were described today by prosecution and defense illustrate the degree to which young people see no barriers in their lives between the public and the private, and feel comfortable talking about both to people who they don’t even know?

EMILY BAZELON, Slate: It does illustrate that.

It illustrates how technology is changing the way college students and teenagers act, and can make them very disrespectful of each other’s privacy in a way that can then really turn around and boomerang and cause them a great deal of trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: At the time that this story first broke, there had been a spate of terrible stories involving what was alleged as cyber-bullying and some early attempts to prosecute this.

Are states working with an old statute book, a statute book that hasn’t really been updated for this new age?

EMILY BAZELON: I think states increasingly are talking about electronic harassment as something that courts and prosecutors can address.

And then the question is to make sure to do that responsibly, so that states don’t overreach and start assuming that the harassment is causing — in this case, there’s actually the assumption that it was causing a suicide, which was very much present in the initial media reports, but which there really is no evidence for.

We really just don’t know why Tyler Clementi killed himself.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that going to likely be a big part of the defense’s case, that it’s hard to draw a line directly from what Dharun Ravi did to what Tyler Clementi did?

EMILY BAZELON: I think that will come up in the kind of undercurrent.

Ravi isn’t charged in Tyler Clementi’s death. He is charged with invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, which are different. And I think that was a wise choice that New Jersey made in bringing the charges. And yet it’s also clear that, without the suicide, you know, that this case probably wouldn’t have gotten so far and that the level of interest in it certainly was generated by that.

RAY SUAREZ: Geoff Mulvihill, what reasons have Dharun Ravi’s defense attorneys given for not taking a plea deal that was offered by the prosecution that involved community service, no jail time and protection for Ravi, who’s an Indian citizen, from deportation?

GEOFF MULVIHILL: Sure.

Their answer was very simple. They said that he was innocent of the charges; he didn’t commit any crimes.

RAY SUAREZ: So what risk is he under now by going to a jury trial?

GEOFF MULVIHILL: Well, he faces 15 different counts. The two most serious could get him 10 years in prison.

RAY SUAREZ: I understand you’re standing in the rain. I will let you get out of the rain, Geoff Mulvihill. Thanks for joining us.

Emily Bazelon, back to you.

In all the talk about privacy, one person whose privacy so far has not been compromised, but may yet be, is the unidentified young man who was seen by Dharun Ravi in Tyler Clementi’s room. He offers a very interesting case of what may end up being collateral damage, doesn’t he?

EMILY BAZELON: Yes, I think that’s exactly the right term for it.

He was not a Rutgers student. And so his presence in the dorm as this stranger was part of what got Dharun Ravi upset that evening that he turned his webcam on. But this person who we know by the initials M.B. is not out and doesn’t want to come forward publicly.

And yet he was with Tyler Clementi, you know, in these moments where his privacy may have been violated. And so his testimony seems like it’s pretty important in the case.

RAY SUAREZ: The term bullying will be used a lot during the coming weeks. But is it one that can be, in legal terms, easily defined? Or will we see, in the way that the defense and prosecution handle their case, that it’s really in the eyes of the beholder?

EMILY BAZELON: I think that’s often true.

Bullying is a word we throw around all the time. It means a lot of different things. And it’s not a particularly good fit for what happened here. I mean, this is really a set of circumstances that are about privacy and disrespecting someone’s privacy on a college campus. And they raise questions about what expectations students should have when they are in their dorm rooms and what kind of space they should give each over.

RAY SUAREZ: And very intimate circumstances for young people who, in many cases, are getting their first taste of life outside the family home.

EMILY BAZELON: That’s right.

And one of the very sad things about this case is that these two young people don’t seem to have really gotten to know each other. They both looked each other up online before school started. And Ravi discovered that Tyler Clementi was gay, and Tyler Clementi discovered that Ravi was South Asian. And then they got to school, and they seemed to have really gone in different directions, as opposed to reaching out to each other.

RAY SUAREZ: Emily Bazelon of Slate, thanks for joining us.

EMILY BAZELON: Thanks very much for having me.