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Jury pool shrinks in Rutgers webcam spying case

The jury pool for the trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man was cut.
/ Source: news services

The jury pool for the trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man was cut Tuesday after the judge reviewed answers from questionnaires.

Just 85 potential jurors for the trial of 19-year-old Dharun Ravi remained by Tuesday afternoon. The judge and lawyers in the case agreed to eliminate about 100 members from the pool because of the views they expressed on the questionnaires.

Twelve people and at least two alternates will ultimately sit on the jury. It's not clear when the trial will begin.

Ravi is charged with 15 criminal counts. The most serious are two bias intimidation counts that accuse him of acting against roommate Tyler Clementi because he's gay. He also faces charges of invasion of privacy and tampering with a witness and evidence.

Clementi's story touched off a national discussion about bullying of young gays after he committed suicide in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, days after the intimate encounter.

Judge Glenn Berman said Tuesday that most of the roughly 190 prospective jurors who filled out questionnaires last week said they had heard about the case.

He dismissed those Middlesex County residents who indicated that they had made up their minds.

Also on Tuesday, Berman fixed an error that could have had an impact on the trial: A hindering apprehension charge was changed from a third-degree crime to a second-degree crime.

Normally, that technical change would mean that a defendant who's found guilty would likely face a prison sentence. But Berman said he could still view that charge as a third-degree crime for sentencing purposes if Ravi is found guilty of it. He said he would decide that issue later if he needs to.

Charged with invasion of privacy, not with death
Ravi has not been charged with causing Clementi's death. Instead the main charge is invading Clementi's privacy, which is unlikely to result in prison time for a first offender. For a hate crime conviction, which carries a sentence of up to five to 10 years, prosecutors must prove Ravi attempted to intimidate Clementi for being gay. Ravi also faces related charges of tampering with witnesses and evidence.

Ravi has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and has rejected a plea deal with prosecutors that could have helped him avoid a prison sentence. Instead he now risks up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

"Most hate crimes are committed against strangers, not against roommates or against good friends or neighbors," Jack Levin, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, said in an interview.

Successful prosecutions typically rely on racial or homophobic slurs made as the crime is committed, graffiti left at the scene, the possession of hateful propaganda by the offender, or an offender's previous history of hate crimes.

"In this case there apparently are none of those indicators to be found," Levin said. "It doesn't sound like a very strong case."

On Sept. 19, 2010, Clementi had arranged to have a man in his mid-20s identified in court only as M.B. to come over, and asked Ravi if he would leave the room. Ravi agreed. He went to the room of Molly Wei, a friend across the corridor, and used her computer to access his webcam through video-chatting software.

Wei later told investigators Ravi was alarmed at having to leave his room for a visit from an unknown older man and wanted to know what was going on. She said they saw images of Clementi kissing M.B., and, shocked, turned the video feed off within seconds. Ravi posted a message on his Twitter account:

"Turned on iChat and saw my roommate making out with a dude. Yay."

Defense points to Clementi's jokes
To secure the bias intimidation conviction, prosecutors will need to convince a jury Ravi invaded Clementi's privacy and that he did so to intimidate him because he was gay.

Ravi's lawyers have pointed to transcripts of Ravi's online conversations with friends showing that, after the gossip value of discovering his roommate's sexuality has apparently faded, he concludes that Clementi being gay is "no big deal."

Ravi's lawyers have said in court documents there is no evidence Clementi was intimidated by Ravi's actions. He was open about his sexuality with friends and had come out to his parents, according to Clementi's chat transcripts.

After learning from Ravi's Twitter post he had been seen on the webcam, Clementi said in an online chat with a friend he felt "violated" at first, but soon after joked about the incident, saying he found it "sooo funny," and laughed when the friend suggested it could be considered a hate crime.

Nonetheless, he filed a formal request to switch roommates and posted his concerns on an Internet forum for gay men, which prosecutors are likely to point to as evidence he felt intimidated.

Even after realizing his encounter with M.B. had been briefly viewed by Ravi, Clementi invited M.B. back to his room two days later and again asked Ravi to excuse himself, although this time he was careful to make sure Ravi's computer was unplugged.