MIDDLESEX COUNTY: Appeals court overturns conviction of ex-Rutgers student convicted of invasion of privacy (Updated)


Dharun Ravi

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
A state appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of a former Rutgers student found guilty in 2012 of using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate being intimate with a man in their dorm room.
In a 61-page ruling, the three-judge panel remanded the case of Dharun Ravi for a new trial to Middlesex County Superior Court on invasion of privacy, evidence tampering and related offenses. Steven D. Altman, Mr. Ravi’s lawyer, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Jim O’Neill, a spokesman for the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s office, which had tried Mr. Ravi four years ago, did not return a call either.
Mr. Ravi was accused of the cyber bullying of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who subsequently killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge around a month into his college career. The two men were freshmen who had been assigned to the same dorm room, in Davidson Hall, on Rutgers’ Busch campus. Prosecutors have portrayed Mr. Ravi as being anti-gay, who allegedly used technology and social media to invade Mr. Clementi’s privacy and intimidate him.
In reversing his March 2012 conviction that followed a 16-day trial, however, the appeals court made several findings. On one hand, the court noted that the part of the state bias crimes law that Mr. Ravi had been convicted of was subsequently found to by unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. As a result, those charges had to be thrown out, the appeals court found.
That, then, had consequences for the rest of the case. The court found that the Prosecutor’s Office, in seeking to prove the bias intimidation charges, presented evidence that “permeated the entire case against (Mr. Ravi), rendering any attempt to salvage the convictions under the remaining charges futile.”
The Prosecutors’ Office, the court found, “used evidence revealing the victim’s reserved demeanor and expressions of shame and humiliation as a counterweight to (the) defendant’s cavalier indifference and unabashed insensitivity to his roommate’s right to privacy and dignity.”
“It is unreasonable to expect a rational juror to remain unaffected by this evidence,” the court said.
The ruling Friday comes right around the six-year-year anniversary of the case.
In September 2010, Mr. Ravi and a second student, Molly Wei – both of whom went to West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North – allegedly viewed Mr. Clementi kissing a then-30-year-old man whom Mr. Clementi had met on a gay social networking site and invited to his dorm. That man’s identify has not been revealed, although he is identified in court documents by his initials, M.B.
Mr. Ravi subsequently went on Twitter to tell of what he saw and urge people to video chat him to view a live video feed of a subsequent encounter between Mr. Clementi and M.B. That viewing never occurred, however.
But learning what had happened to him, Mr. Clementi, who had only recently disclosed his homosexuality to his parents, drove himself to the George Washington Bridge and jumped into the Hudson River. His body was recovered days later. After an investigation, Mr. Ravi and Ms. Wei were both charged in the case, although they were not held responsible for Mr. Clementi’s suicide.
“The sense of loss associated with a young man taking his own life defies our meager powers of reason and tests our resolve to seek consolation,” the Appeals Court wrote in its decision.
Ms. Wei agreed to testify against Mr. Ravi, who was convicted, sentenced to 30 days in the county jail and three years’ probation and required to perform 300 hours of community service, among other things. The Prosecutor’s Office appealed the light sentence, while Mr. Ravi appealed his conviction.
Now, following Friday’s ruling, both sides find themselves at square one in the case. Joe and Jane Clementi, Tyler’s parents, issued a statement Friday in response to the decision.
“In light of today’s decision, we will do what we encourage all people to do before they push that send button, and that is to pause and consider the implications of their message,” their statement read in part. “Does it encourage and build someone up or does it destroy and harm another person? Our world moves very fast which pushes us to be impulsively spontaneous and sometimes harsh. Today’s decision shows us how much more work there is to be done, and will push us forward with stronger determination to create a kinder more empathic society where every person is valued and respected.”
For its part, Rutgers University had no comment.
“From a societal perspective, this case has exposed some of the latent dangers concealed by the seemingly magical powers of the Internet,” the appeals court ruling read in part. “The implications associated with the misuse of our technological advancements lies beyond this court’s competency to address.”