Rutgers Trial: The Political Firestorm Before the Indictment

Tyler Clementi's suicide touched off political firestorm before charges filed.

March 13, 2012, 8:35 AM

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. March 13, 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.

Kaplan, known as a cautious, button-down prosecutor who avoids the press at any cost, suddenly faced a frenzied national media descending upon him. The outside world was demanding a hate crime, so, he told reporters he had expanded the investigation.

"The initial focus of this investigation has been to determine who was responsible for remotely activating the camera in the dormitory room of the student and then transmitting the encounter on the internet,'' Kaplan said. "Now that two individuals have been charged with invasion of privacy, we will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident, and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges."

Those words opened a media floodgate of distortion. News stories and broadcasts now reported that Ravi had recorded the episode and transmitted it on the internet. In fact, Ravi and Wei had glimpsed at just a few seconds of Clementi and his companion kissing on a livestream connection to a single computer. (That basic fact would not be revealed until the end of October.)

The same day, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie teared up as he spoke to reporters about the case in Trenton.

"As the father of a 17-year-old, I can't imagine what those parents are feeling today -- I can't," Christie said. Then referring to Ravi and Wei, added, "I have to tell you, I don't know how those two folks are going to sleep at night."

Not to be outdone in the court of public sentiment, New Jersey lawmakers promised new laws to address high-tech bullying, which they delivered two months later.

"Tyler Clementi is far from the first victim of bullying in the internet age, but we must resolve to make him the last," said New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, before the state Senate held a moment of silence for Clementi. (Sweeney had come under public fire months earlier for refusing to vote on a gay marriage bill.)

The next day, Sept. 30, talk show host Ellen Degeneres weighed in on her show:

"I am devastated over the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi. If you don't know, Tyler was a bright student at Rutgers University whose life was senselessly cut short. He was outed as being gay on the internet and he killed himself. Something must be done."

Stars such as singers Paula Abdul, Ciara and Nicki Minaj would soon join the chorus. Soon after, President Obam and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton released their own videos, reacting to Clementi and the other suicides, repeating the It Gets Better mantra.

Lost in the din were the less than predictable sentiments of William Dobbs, a longtime gay activist:

"The media attention and public outrage have been swift, with loud clamoring for the heads of the two other Rutgers students whom popular sentiment holds responsible for the freshman's death," he wrote in an Oct. 10 letter to the New York Times. "The depth of this tragedy is not a license to destroy individuals, to scrap due process and fairness."

John Farmer, dean of Rutgers Law School and former NJ Attorney General, offers this: "The internet and the 24/7 news cycle have combined in many cases to obliterate the presumption of innocence. In cases like the Duke lacrosse team alleged rape, the Jason Williams alleged aggravated manslaughter, and the world bank executive's alleged rape, the firestorm of condemnation has raged with little regard for truth or justice. It challenges the most seasoned prosecutor's commitment to fairness."

In November 2010, The Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act was introduced in the U.S. House and Senate by Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.) and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). In addition to requiring all colleges that receive federal aid to amend their harassment policies, the new law would provide funding to help schools start anti-bullying programs on campus.

On the same day DeGeneres spoke up, The Star-Ledger weighed in with an editorial, entitled, "An Unnatural Death: And a Reason for New Resolve Against Bigotry"

"We don't know with certainty what drove Clementi off that bridge, but we know he was a gay man who was treated like a circus animal, his sexual life treated like a curiosity.

"There are millions more young gay people across this country, many of them living phony lives so that they can escape the bigotry, or least sidestep it for a while. On behalf of those kids, we need to resolve to cleanse our society of this prejudice once and for all. … "

On Oct. 4, the prosecutor Kaplan stated that he did not think there would be enough evidence to charge Ravi and Wei with a hate crime. He would later change his mind.

The storm quelled until April 20, 2011 at 9:44 a.m., when it struck with full fury.

In addition to the invasion of privacy charges, an indictment handed up by a Middlesex County grand jury added three bias intimidation charges (hate crimes). The indictment against Ravi also contained charges that Ravi tampered with evidence and a witness, and tried to hindered his own apprehension .

New Jersey State Attorney General Paula Dow offered her praise: "This indictment is an important step in this heartbreaking case. New Jersey's bias law recognizes the terrible harm caused by acts of bigotry and hatred and imposes harsher punishment on those who commit such crimes."

Three weeks later, it was learned Molly Wei had entered into a plea deal and was cooperating with authorities. A judge in New Brunswick granted Wei's request for admittance into a pretrial probationary program that would lead to dismissal of all charges against her in the high-profile case. Wei agreed to get counseling, perform 300 hours of community service and testify against Ravi at the trial.

Six months later, on Nov. 28, 2011, Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure offered Ravi a plea deal that would have spared Ravi prison time. Ravi rejected it.

"Why did he reject the plea?" Ravi's attorney, Steven Altman, was asked after the hearing. "He's innocent. He's not guilty. That's why he rejected the plea."

A lengthy New Yorker piece last February shifted the tectonics of the Tyler Clementi discussion. Author Ian Parker waded through stacks of court documents and for the first time interviewed friends of Ravi's family, as well as Rutgers students.

His piece turned a thus far simplistic story into one that was complicated and nuanced. He debunked several of the myths and inaccuracies that clung to the story. A shouting match was transformed into reasonable discourse.

Of note, Parker reported that on Sept. 22, 2010, Ravi had written Clementi a letter of apology. He sent it at 8:46 p.m., four minutes after Clementi's final text from the George Washington Bridge.

"I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it," Ravi wrote. "In fact on of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. … I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have the right to move if you wish, but I don't want you to feel pressure to without fully understanding the situation."

It will probably never be known if Clementi read it. It wasn't shared with the grand jury, but it is now in evidence in the trial.

After the New Yorker story, the Tyler Clementi debate became more informed and more reasonable. People began wondering – out loud – if the prosecutor had over-indicted the case. A recent Star-Ledger editorial suggested that the New Jersey's hate crime statute was inappropriate, outdated and should be revised.

"The bias statute doesn't have to be changed. It's how it's implemented, like any other criminal charge, that's the issue," said New Jersey Sen. Raymond Lesniak, a co-sponsoor of the law.

The trial bore out Parker's piece. The simplistic tale of bigotry and bullying teetered under its own weight. For the most part, the consensus of reporters and legal analysts following the trial is that the state's hate crime charges are thin, at best.

After hearing all the evidence, legal analysts openly wondered why the state insisted charging Ravi with hate crimes. The privacy and tampering charges could go either way.

"Time will tell why the prosecutor brought these bias charges into a courtroom," says John Fahy, a former New Jersey prosecutor. "In my view, the facts and evidence seem to have gotten in the way of a very sensational indictment."

And the question we should then address it this: Are there two victims in the State vs. Dharun Ravi?

Soon the jury will deliberate. Then they will speak, displacing the court of public opinion. They will utter the final word of any consequence in the State v Dharun Ravi. One way or the other, though, their verdict will offer a cautionary tale.