Rutgers Trial: The Political Firestorm Before the Indictment

PHOTO: Dharun Ravi listens to testimony during his trial at the Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J., March 12, 2012.

Burden of Proof: Analysis By Chris Cuomo

On the evening of Sept. 22, 2010 -- 8:42 p.m. to be exact -- Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi stood on the George Washington Bridge, thumbing in a final Facebook message on his cell phone reading: "jumping off the GW bridge sorry."

The weather in Manhattan that cloudless autumn night was near perfect – high 70s, no wind, no humidity. But a perfect, socio-political storm began forming the moment the troubled, gay 18-year-old leaped to his death.

One day earlier, sex advice columnist Dan Savage launched his internet-based "It Gets Better" campaign, specifically to bring awareness to a string of suicides of young Americans, the result of homophobic bullying.

The two events were instantly fused. Clementi's suicide put an immediate face on Savage's issue, and set off a chain-reaction of events that propelled Clementi's death into a trajectory so high it is difficult to see it clearly, even 17 months later.

Today, Clementi's college roommate, Dharun Ravi, sits in a courtroom in New Brunswick, N.J., waiting to see if he will be sent to prison for five to 10 years. He is charged with, among other offenses, a hate crime that alleges he and a friend, Molly Wei, had spied on Clementi via a webcam just a few days earlier in a romantic encounter with another man in a Rutgers dorm room. He is charged with invading Clementi's privacy, and, more importantly, he is accused of doing so because Clementi was gay.

He is in not charged in Clementi's death, and the suicide has barely been mentioned during the three-week trial. But it has everything to do with the criminal investigation that began immediately after Clementi jumped, and it had everything to do with Ravi's indictment six months later. The judicial system has now left it up to 12 jurors to make sense of that dichotomy.

To appreciate their task, one must review the critical few days after Clementi's death, when America anointed Dharun Ravi as America's Cyberbully No. 1.

On Sept. 27, five days after Clementi's suicide, detectives interviewed Wei, and then Ravi the following day. Hours after interrogating Ravi, and a day before Clementi's body was found in the Hudson River in upper Manhattan, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office announced that Ravi and Wei had been charged with invasion of privacy and transmitting a sexual encounter on the internet.

The story was a day away from the point of combustion.

On. Sept. 29, the day after Ravi and Wei were charged with invasion of privacy, Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, issued a statement, saying his group considered Clementi's death a hate crime.

"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," Goldstein said.

Goldstein's sentiments caught fire. His sentiments were embraced by gay advocates and bloggers world-wide, and his hate crime demand went viral. A socio-political storm was approaching hurricane status.

The next day, while Rutgers police officers and local detectives were still trying to piece together what had happened, Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan launched the story into a new orbit.

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