March 5, 2012 -- 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.
The irony is not lost on some. Whether spoken or not, it was Clementi's death that captured the media's attention and propelled the case to a grand jury and now a courtroom. Its specter looms over every aspect of the case, but it cannot be discussed.
But talk about it Altman did, trying to uncork the bottle.
"Like any evidence, if it comes in half-way, it's going to be very difficult to put it back in a bottle," said Robert Honecker, a former New Jersey prosecutor. "What the defense is trying to do is show that there are other explanations as to why Tyler Clementi killed himself, other than he had his privacy invaded. The defense is trying to broaden the possibilities as to why this young man committed suicide."
Before the trial, Altman told reporters he believed that everything should be shared with the jury.
Before today, Clementi's suicide had come up only in passing. But there is one constant reminder in the courtroom of the death. Clementi's parents and other relatives -- including, at times, both of his older brothers -- sat through each of the first six days of the trial.
Huang's earlier testimony offered what the prosecution hoped would prove its most punitive charges of a hate crime.
Huang, whom Ravi has known since high school, confirmed she received a tweet message from Ravi encouraging her to join the "viewing party" on Sept. 21, 2010, telling her he was going to secretly turn on his computer webcam a second time to capture Clementi and an older male friend meeting in a college dorm room. More importantly, for the state's contention of a hate crime, Ravi tweeted her: "We have to keep the gays away."
Despite a stream of state's witnesses -- including Huang -- who said they never heard Ravi demonstrate any hostility toward homosexuals, the state will no doubt use this statement to help support its charge of bias intimidation -- that Ravi was trying to invade Clementi's privacy because he wanted to intimidate Clementi because he was gay. And thus far, it's the prosecutors' only real offering to support their most significant charge.