Jury selection begins Tuesday in a New Brunswick, N.J., courtroom for the trial of Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who with a silent flip of his laptop webcam secretly watched his roommate in a moment of gay intimacy, and unwittingly set in motion a series of events that would make him a national symbol of cyber-bullying.
The trial, which will be broadcast live across the country and as far away as India, will culminate a criminal prosecution that many believe would never have happened if not for the fact that Tyler Clementi, Ravi's gay roommate, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010 -- just three days after Ravi electronically captured him kissing a man in his dorm room.
While authorities were only beginning their investigation, the media and
public readily connected the dots, and Clementi's death struck a growing anti-bullying nerve in America and became a blog-driven lightening rod for outrage in the gay community.
Although the court of the public opinion condemned Ravi in the immediate aftermath of Clementi's death, two former New Jersey prosecutors say it will be a much more challenging case in the court of law.
"Pressure from gay rights groups, and global media attention made this case one that had to be prosecuted," former New Jersey prosecutor Robert Honecker said. "Yet the charges themselves are very difficult to prove."
Ravi, now 19, faces up to 10 years in state prison if he is convicted on the multiple counts of invasion of privacy, witness tampering, hindering prosecution and bias intimidation.
He rejected a plea deal in December that would have allowed him to serve no jail time, but require him to perform 600 hours of community service and receive counseling. The state also assured Ravi, an Indian citizen, they would recommend to immigration officials that he not be deported.
"The fact that the prosecution offered this plea deal in the first place indicates that they are worried that they might have a tough time in court," said John Fahy, another former New Jersey prosecutor familiar with the case.
"Simple answer, simple principal. He's innocent. He's not guilty," defense attorney Steven Altman said. "That's why he rejected the plea."
The Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office has declined to comment on any aspect of the case.
Only the bias charges -- alleging Ravi's acts were intended to intimidate Clementi because of his sexual preference -- carry a presumption of incarceration. And therein lies the heart of both the legal case and the cloud of extrajudicial scrutiny that surrounds it. The jury will be asked to go inside Ravi's mind and determine his motives.
In the final analysis, Fahy says, the trial boils down to a jury having to determine whether Ravi is "a malicious homophobe," as prosecutors contend, or merely "a dopey prankster," as his lawyer will likely portray him.
These critical bias counts may be the most difficult to prove, as court papers and expected witness testimony describe an increasingly complicated relationship between the two unlikely roommates.
In the late summer of 2010, Ravi received the name of his freshman roommate from Rutgers University. After his initial online search, Ravi told a friend on iChat, "He's the literal opposite of me."