Burden of Proof: The Elephant in the Clementi Trial

PHOTO: This undated photograph provided by Joseph and Jane Clementi shows their son Tyler Clementi at a family function. | Dharun Ravi, arrives for the opening arguments at his trial in New Brunswick, N.J., Feb. 24, 2012.
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Burden of Proof: Analysis by Chris Cuomo

The elephant in the New Jersey courtroom -- the barely mentioned death of Tyler Clementi -- stomped its foot in the trial of Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi today, in the form of an exchange of text messages between the defendant and a friend the day after Clementi leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi, accused of spying on his roommate with a webcam in September 2010, has been charged with multiple counts of invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and bias intimidation -- a hate crime.

Before the trial, the judge informed the jury of Clementi's suicide, but reminded them Ravi is not charged with causing his roommate's death. And for that reason, the judge told lawyers, testimony and evidence about the suicide would be severely limited. Prosecutors are precluded from linking the spying allegations to the suicide. Defense lawyers cannot make the case that Clementi killed himself for reasons that have nothing to do with the webcam incident.

But while cross-examining Michelle Huang, Ravi's friend since high school, defense attorney Steven Altman went right there. He asked Huang to describe the text messages she exchanged with Ravi when he learned Clementi had committed suicide on Sept. 22, 2010 -- presumably to show Ravi's didn't believe he had anything to do with his roommates death.

The exchange between the two friends, on Sept. 23, went like this:

Ravi: "My roommate committed suicide."

Huang: "You're kidding?"

Ravi: "... The cops came to my room last night looking for him and a bunch of counselors told me this morning. He jumped off a bridge."

Huang: "Wait are you serious??? WTF?? That's mad scrary .. Wasn't he like fine though? That's really crazy."

Huang then asked why he killed himself, and Ravi replied: "Idk. I guess he was quiet because he was depressed. ... No idea. He was quiet all the time and had no friends and so guess it makes sense."

After Huang's testimony, Middlesex County First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure told the judge that now that Altman was delving into the suicide, she might recall some earlier witnesses to ask them about conversations with Ravi about the suicide.

Judge Glenn Berman said he had allowed the questioning of Huang to continue because jurors might not have understood the texts without that context.

But he was apprehensive about allowing more exploration of the suicide because Ravi isn't charged with it.

"My preference is we don't talk about it," he said.

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