Analysis: Burden Remains for the Prosecution in Tyler Clementi Case

Witness testimony in Rutgers trial to this point have not indicated a hate crime

February 29, 2012, 9:54 AM

Feb. 29, 2012 -- Burden of Proof: Analysis by Chris Cuomo

After calling eight witnesses in the trial of former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, the prosecution has yet to provide a witness to support the accusation that Ravi committed a hate crime, according to former New Jersey prosecutor.

"It has been a surprise that all of the prosecution's witnesses have actually hurt the prosecution's case concerning the bias intimidation charges," said Robert Honecker, a former New Jersey prosecutor. "They have all said that he lacks prejudice and that his conduct was not based on Clementi's sexual orientation."

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.

To prove the most severe charges, which carry a potential 10 year prison sentence, the state must show that Ravi intimidated Clementi because of his sexual orientation—charges which the state's own witnesses have refuted.

When defense attorney Steven Altman asked Rutgers student Alissa Agarwal during her testimony on Tuesday whether Ravi ever said anything negative about Tyler, Agarwal replied, "No, never." When Altman inquired about whether Ravi was upset about Tyler's sexual orientation, Agarwal replied, "Not in the least bit."

"By neutralizing the counts of bias intimidation during each cross-examination, the defense can demonstrate that it was an innocent attempt to view the situation in the room, rather than anything motivated by bias," said Honecker.

Key witness Molly Wei, who pled not guilty and entered a pretrial intervention program in exchange for her testimony, also suggested that Ravi was motivated by factors unrelated to Clementi's sexual orientation.

Wei told the court that she and Ravi peeked at Clementi for a few seconds, seeing the two men kissing. Yet she said Ravi was not alarmed that Clementi had a gay liaison, but worried that the much older man did not appear to be a Rutgers student and might steal his iPad.

"He was shocked, kind of surprised at what he saw, freaking out a little. We were both shocked. … We saw something we didn't expect to see and it just felt weird," Wei told the court.

Under direct examination from assistant prosecutor Christopher Schellhorn, Wei testified that Ravi had mentioned early in the school year that "Tyler might be gay," adding, "It was a casual mention that didn't come up again."

When Altman further questioned Wei, she denied that Ravi expressed a motive to her about wanting to bully his roommate.

Altman: "Dharun never told you he wanted to make Tyler uncomfortable?"

Wei: "No."

Analysis of Rutgers Trial

Altman: "Dharun never told you he wanted to intimidate Tyler?"Wei: "No."

"It has been a consistent theme in this case, when asked the question directly, the answer has repeatedly been 'No,'" said Josh Dubin, a strategist and jury consultant for the defense.

The two witnesses expected to testify on Wednesday for the prosecution will likely address whether Clementi himself felt intimidated by Ravi.

Raahi Grover, a resident adviser at Rutgers University, dealt personally with Clementi's concern about the alleged spying incident and his request for a room change.

M.B., a 30-year-old man who is identified only by his initials to protect his identity, was viewed kissing Clementi on Sept. 19, and returned with Clementi on a second date in the dorm room on Sept. 21, the night before Tyler committed suicide.

Although all witness testimony so far has been broadcast live on TruTv and online, Judge Glenn Berman ruled that M.B.'s testimony will not be televised or audio-recorded in order to protect his identity. Such privacy safeguards are usually reserved for cases involving sexual assault. Unlike the other witnesses in this case, M.B. will enter and exit the court through private hallways.

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