When an individual In the United States faces criminal charges, the burden of proof falls upon the prosecution, not the defense. It seems odd then that former Rutgers student, Dharun Ravi, was accused and convicted of bias intimidation though the prosecution failed to produce one witness or one single shred of evidence. Ravi was brought to court based on his actions targeting his former roommate, Tyler Clementi, because of Clementi’s sexual orientation. Clementi took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in September 2010. This led to an immediate response of public sympathy and support for the late Rutgers student, and his family. People across the country took to Twitter and Facebook to mourn Clementi and likewise vent their frustration at cyber-bullying, anti-gay discrimination, and the recent string of teen suicides. While the death of any young person is a tragedy, public outcry should not prevent anyone from getting a fair trail.
Ellen DeGeneres stated that Clementi had been “outed as being gay on the Internet and he killed himself. Something must be done.” [i] Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group, released a statement saying, “We are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport.” [ii] New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, “I don’t know how those two folks are going to sleep at night, knowing that they contributed to driving that young man to that alternative.” [iii] New Jersey lawmakers rushed to create legislation named in Clementi’s honor, which prevented harassment in universities. [iv] Even President Obama weighed in, expressing his condolences to “several young people who were bullied and taunted for being gay, and who ultimately took their own lives.”[v]
According to these high-profile individuals, it seems plausible that Ravi must have engaged in some malicious form of anti-gay bullying and sought to destroy his roommate’s life by posting videos of sexual content on the Internet. However, listening to the narrative spun by the media and American public skews the realities of the case and hides several unpublicized and undeniable truths.
What if I were to inform Ms. DeGeneres that Tyler Clementi had already come out to his parents and was active on gay forums and hookup sites? What if I told Governor Christie that only one person was actually charged with a crime, and that person was not charged in connection with Clementi’s death? And what if the American public knew that Dharun Ravi was no more bigoted towards homosexuals than Tyler Clementi was prejudiced towards Indian-Americans? Would that change public opinion? Most importantly, is this not a sad reflection of our society’s tendency to convict via a “trial by public opinion”?
From the beginning of the trial, the media, lawmakers, and prosecutors sought a scapegoat for yet another suicide by a gay teen. Criminal defendants are guaranteed the right to a “fair trial” with an “impartial jury”, liberties rooted in the process of the American judicial system. Yet, this trial lost all notions of fairness, impartiality, and process once the prosecution decided to add bias intimidation to Mr. Ravi’s rap sheet. A charge that the prosecution had no evidence to back up.
Nothing is more damning to the bias intimidation charge than the fact that the prosecutors attempted to negotiate a plea bargain with Ravi in December. [vi] The details of the deal included Mr. Ravi’s acceptance of a guilty plea, in exchange for no jail time and legal assistance in preventing his deportation to India. [vii]
It is well known within legal circles that prosecutors generally offer plea bargains as a way to prevent lengthy trials and to ensure criminals are locked up. However, low-balling a defendant and offering no jail time, as was the case with Mr. Ravi, is usually an indication that the prosecution lacks a strong case and is weary of losing in court. To prove that Ravi targeted his roommate because he was gay, the prosecutors first needed to establish that Ravi demonstrated prejudiced behavior against gays previously. The prosecutors failed to produce one witness to corroborate this story. [viii] By contrast, the defense produced seven witnesses who each stated that they had never heard Ravi say anything even remotely negative about the gay community or Tyler Clementi.[ix] In fact, a text message sent shortly before Clementi’s death revealed that Ravi had apologized to his roommate and acknowledged that he had no problem with his homosexuality:
“I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”[x]
In spite of this evidence, and the lack of any to the contrary, the jury shockingly convicted Ravi on the bias intimidation charges.
Just as shocking was the false reporting and public smearing of Ravi’s character. ABC News falsely reported that Ravi had posted a sex tape of his roommate online. [xi] CNN claimed that Clementi’s room “had become a prison to him in the days before his death.” [xii] Angry bloggers released the addresses and private telephone numbers of Ravi and Molly Wei, the other individual initially charged in the case. [xiii] Many blasted him with racial slurs and called him a murderer. Still, the absence of fair and accurate reporting, on the circumstances of Tyler Clementi’s death should not have affected the outcome of the case.
From what is known, Ravi and Clementi were opposites in almost every regard. Ravi grew up in an affluent suburb as a confident athlete and tech-wiz. [xiv] Clementi, by contrast, was a shy, quiet, loner who preferred to play violin and keep to himself. [xv] Ravi’s friends have described him as being arrogant or even a jerk at times, but never a homophobe. [xvi] Both students poked fun at one another in conversations with their friends prior to moving in at Rutgers. While his friends derided Clementi’s homosexuality, Ravi seemed more concerned with Clementi’s modest wealth, saying, “Dude I hate poor people.” [xvii] Likewise, Clementi snickered at Ravi’s Indian roots to a friend, commenting that his father “defs owna [sic] dunkin” (In reality, Ravi’s father is a software consultant and owner of an IT company). [xviii] Despite these quips, neither student seemed to be aggressive against one another’s race or sexual orientation.
Considering the personality differences between the two roommates, it is not surprising that they had little to no interaction and were at times awkward. However, despite these differences, both were relatively satisfied in having each other as roommates, with Clementi writing, “…he’s a pretty decent roommate.” [xix]
On September 19, Clementi had arranged for a tryst with an older man he had met online, known only as “M.B.”, after receiving Ravi’s approval to have a guest over. [xx] Ravi described a brief encounter with M.B., who did not acknowledge Ravi, saying he looked “sketchy” and perhaps even “homeless.” [xxi] Once he understood that Clementi and M.B. wanted to be alone, Ravi left, but worried that his iPad could be stolen. [xxii] Later that night in Molly Wei’s room, he turned on his webcam, to supposedly make sure all of his belongings were safe. [xxiii] Instead, he and Wei witnessed a few seconds of Clementi and M.B. kissing.
According to statements made to the police, Ravi and Wei were shocked at what they had seen and initially agreed not to tell anyone. [xxiv] This agreement lasted about three to four minutes. Ravi posted on his Twitter page what he just seen and Wei showed several dorm mates the brief snippet while Ravi was gone. [xv] In a text message conversation with her boyfriend, Wei described her apparent horror: “He’s NICE but he’s kissing a guy right now / like THEY WERE GROPING EACH OTHER EWWWW.” [xvi] Clementi had become aware of what his roommate had seen and done after viewing Ravi’s Twitter page, yet he did not seem to be initially bothered by it in private conversations with his friends. He even joked about getting his roommate in trouble for committing a hate crime. [xxvii]
Two days later Clementi asked for the room again, prompting Ravi to post on Twitter, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” [xxviii] Clementi apparently saw the post, and immediately disabled his roommate’s webcam. [xxix] Ravi contends that he made the choice to end the iChat session, so it was never broadcasted. [xxx] Clementi, being fed up with his roommate’s actions, followed up by formalizing a roommate change request with his RA. [xxxi] The following evening, Tyler Clementi was gone.
I have no idea what went through Tyler Clementi’s mind in the hours before he tragically took his life, though it is likely that the webcam incidents played a role in causing his distress. He complained to his RA and expressed being upset when confiding on the forum of a gay pornographic site. [xxxii]
That being said, it is possible that something else in his life was equally responsible for causing his vulnerable state. His mother, after he had come out during the summer, told him “Don’t hurt yourself,” fearing that he may have been emotionally compromised. [xxxiii] Paul Mainardi, a family member, pondered whether Tyler was “in-the-thinking-about suicide world” even before college. [xxxiv] Additionally, three files created during the summer were found on his computer, titled “Gah”, “sorry”, and “Why is everything so painful” all generally about hurting himself. [xxxv] On the day of his suicide, he was being described as being perfectly normal in a conversation with his mother and when rehearsing with his music instructor. [xxxvi]
As it is known that Clementi’s family members were concerned about his emotional well-being early on. Is it really evident that Mr. Ravi played a central role in Clementi’s suicide?
It is clear, based on testimony and personal correspondence that Dharun Ravi is not a true homophobe, just as Tyler Clementi was not a true a racist. Moreover, there is no evidence to prove that the initial “spying” incident was a malicious attempt to torment his roommate, as no witnesses refuted Ravi’s contention that he was monitoring his personal property. The invasion of privacy charges, which pertain to attempting to view a sexual encounter, were legitimate however, as the second incident was meant to be broadcasted to the public. At the same time, this does not provide sufficient support for the bias intimidation charges, which were a textbook example of prosecutorial overreach.
Something needs to be said of Ravi’s character and the motivation behind his actions. If telling the truth, he certainly was right to check on his room and personal belongings, although broadcasting it on iChat was immature, rude, and idiotic to say the least. Bearing this in mind, his behavior cannot be simply categorized as malicious, rather intentions of feeling popular and showing off must also be taken into account. Without a more thorough investigation, one could argue Ravi had a poor lapse in judgment that is costing him dearly.
The media, prosecutors, and American public used this case to tarnish the reputation of an individual who had an otherwise promising future. They branded him as a malicious homophobe and manipulated his friend, Molly Wei, to testify against him. They started false rumors of sex tapes, imprisonment, and anti-gay hatred to convict him in the eyes of the American public. On all counts, they succeeded.
Why did none of the reports mention the racist remark made by Clementi towards Indian-Americans? The withholding of such information, not presented to the public until a year after the death, is a clear result of the media manipulating the narrative of a very serious case. It is unacceptable for the media to stretch the truth in order to make someone look like a bigot, especially when it can cost them their freedom.
Perhaps, we need a more thorough investigation into who the real bigots are.
[i] DeGeneres, Ellen. “It’s Time to End Teenage Bullying.” The Ellen DeGeneres Show. N.p., 04 Sep 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://ellen.warnerbros.com/2010/09/its_time_to_end_teenage_bullying_0930.php>.
[ii] Goldstein, Steven. GardenStateEquality.org. Garden State Equality, 29 Sep 2010. Web. 22 Mar 2012. <http://equalityfederation.salsalabs.com/o/35022/t/0/blastContent.jsp?email_blast_KEY=1812>.
[iii] Davis, Linsey. “New Jersey Gov. Wonders How Rutgers ‘Spies’ Can Sleep at Night After Tyler Clementi’s Suicide.” abcnews.go.com. ABC World News, 30 Sep 2010. Web. 22 Mar 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/suicide-rutgers-university-freshman-tyler-clementi-stuns-veteran/story?id=11763784>.
[iv] Chebium, Raju. “N.J. Lawmakers Introduce Anti-bullying Act.” USA Today 21 Nov 2010, n. pag. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-11-19-new-jersey-bully-bill_N.htm>.
[v] Parker, Ian . “The Story of a Suicide: Two College Roommates, a Webcam, and a Tragedy.” New Yorker. 06 Feb 2012: n. page. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/02/06/120206fa_fact_parker?currentPage=all>.