Feb. 21, 2012 -- 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."
Ravi is the oldest son of well-educated parents who immigrated to New Jersey from India when Ravi was a toddler. During high school, Ravi joined the ultimate frisbee team and frequently tinkered with the latest trends in technology, following in the footsteps of his father, who owns an information-technology company. Ravi is viewed by those who know him as incessantly social and boisterous.
Clementi, on the other hand, was a talented violinist, painfully quiet and extremely shy, according to court papers. He often wished he had more friends. While Ravi drove a BMW in high school, Clementi did not own a car. He grew up in a "very conservative, very religious family," according to his older brother James. Clementi's mother worked as a nurse and his father served as the director of public works in Hawthorne, N.J.
Clementi's other interests, which he mentioned in various online forums, include unicycling, computing, and photography.
Ravi and Clementi each formed simplistic impressions of the other online before they ever met in person.
Clementi had come out to his parents just three days before leaving for college in the fall of 2010. But he had long been active on gay online websites, including a pornographic site called Justforboys, where Ravi discovered a post from Clementi.
"Found out my roommate is gay," Ravi tweeted.
Clementi wrote his own friend on gChat, "I've started stalking my roommate..," and "I got an azn (Asian)."
He then forwarded a link to Ravi's Twitter account. Later, after meeting Ravi's Indian parents for the first time, Clementi messaged a friend "sooo Indian first gen americanish" and "defs owna dunkin" (Dunkin' Donuts).
Unlike Ravi, who spent much time outside of their room socializing, Clementi admits in his chats that he was a private person "wanting to be alone," and worried about being overheard playing his violin by his fellow freshman in the dorm: "It feels so awk to practice in the room ... like everyone in the whole building can hear me hehe."
He tells another friend, "I would die if I was forced to always have people around me."
Clementi had recently opened up about his sexuality to both his family and classmates. He tells his online contact Sam Cruz: "I'm out to a whole bunch a people."
In July 2010, he came out to his older brother James and had told his parents just before leaving for college. Although his father accepted the news, Clementi perceived his mother's reaction very differently: "It's a good thing dad is ok w/it or I would be in serious trouble / mom has basically completely rejected me."
Other documents found on Clementi's computer indicate that Clementi also may have suffered from depression during this same period. Files entitled "Gah.docx," "sorry.docx," and "Why is everything so painful.docx," are dated from July through early September. But the judge will not permit any of these documents in court, since Ravi is not charged with Clementi's death.
Ravi's own ambivalent, and at times accepting, reaction to Clementi's sexual orientation further complicates the prosecution's case.
"There are numerous indications that the defendant wasn't homophobic," Fahy said.
In various Internet chats, he told friends that "idc" (an abbreviation for "I don't care") and "Im not really angry or sad idc." When his friend Tam replied, "What if he wants you, won't that get awk," Ravi replied, "Why would it be awk."
In another message he wrote, "F**K MY LIFE / He's gay," but qualified himself moments later, "I'm just like LOL / Maybe I'm still a little buzzed."
Ravi also sent Clementi a substantial text message, apologizing for his webcam intrustion, on the night of his death: "I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don't want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation."
Tension had risen between the roommates after Clementi brought a 25-year-old man who lived off campus into their shared dorm room. The two had connected via a hook-up site Adam4adam.
On Sept. 19, Clementi sent a text message to Ravi asking if he could use the room for the evening. Ravi agreed, but expressed skepticism to Molly Wei, a freshman living in the same dorm whom he'd known since grade school, about why his roommate needed the room. In her statement to police, Wei says Ravi worried that the man, only identified as M.B., might steal his iPad and seemed "really shady."
Wei, who was initially charged along with Ravi, has since agreed to cooperate with the state, testify against Ravi and avoid jail. Wei also promised to join an intervention program that requires her to perform 300 hours of community service over the next three years and undergo counseling for cyberbullying.
That night, Ravi used Wei's computer to access a webcam from his laptop that he had left in his own room.
At 9:13 p.m., Ravi activated a live unrecorded video image of his room while Wei sat nearby. Both saw Clementi and M.B. touching and kissing for a few seconds. Wei says in her statement: "I couldn't see any faces, and they were just what seemed to be kissing, and then, after literally two seconds, we just turned it off. And we were kind of both kind of in shock."
Four minutes later, Ravi tweeted, "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
Although Clementi may not have noticed the webcam that night, he did see Ravi's Twitter post the next day. Yet his chats with friend Hannah Yang indicate that he was largely dismissive of the incident:
Yang: I would feel seriously violated
Clementi: like wtf [what] did he think was gonna happen?.
Oh yah I gotcha
When I first read the tweet
I defs felt violated
When I rememberd what actually happened
Idk [I don't know]
Doesn't seem soooo bad lol
Yang: You guys really need to talk?
But its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything
He just like took a five sec peep lol
He also sought feedback from the online community at Justusboys.
"I feel like the only thing the school might do is find me another roommate, probably with me moving out .. and I'd probably just end up with somebody worse than him ... I mean aside from being an a**hole from time to time, he's a pretty decent roommate," Clementi wrote in his post.
Clementi's mixed reaction to the incident and Ravi presents a critical obstacle for the prosecution.
"The fact that Clementi knew about the webcam incident and didn't seem to really care in his messages could make it hard to establish that he was intimidated," Fahy said.
After deliberating for more than a day and receiving additional encouragement from Yang, Clementi reported Ravi to their resident advisor and filled out the online request for a room change, citing how his roommate had spied on him with a webcam. Instead of leaving the room that day after his advisor offered him another place to sleep, however, Clementi arranged for another rendezvous in the dorm with M.B.
On Sept. 21, he sent Ravi a text: "Could I have the room again like 9:30 till midnight?" and received the reply, "Yeah no problem." Ravi then tweeted twice about the rendezvous occurring in his room and texted a friend at Cornell, "people are having a viewing party."
Because Clementi was keeping tabs on Ravi's tweets, he intervened by unplugging the power strip for Ravi's computer and webcam, making any viewing impossible. Ravi would later claim in a statement that he had already dismantled the webcam.
The next morning, Clementi talked to his mother on the phone without mentioning anything unusual, and later attended his orchestra rehearsal, according to an article in People magazine.
That afternoon, Ravi and Clementi saw one another in their dorm room, but there is no indication that they exchanged words. Ravi does recall in his statement seeing Clementi "doing something by his desk," but police have not released the handwritten note found in the room.
Ravi left the room to meet with a friend, and returned to find that Clementi had gone. At 8:42 p.m., Clementi posted his last status update on Facebook, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
While Clementi's suicide has been deemed legally irrelevant to Ravi's trial, it nevertheless served as the catalyst for the subsequent investigation and prosecution.
"It is only because of its association with the suicide, that this made it to court," Fahy said. "It shouldn't have happened."
From a pool of more than 200 potential jurors, the prosecution and defense have begun to select the 12 who will eventually decide this question.
Defense attorney Steve Altman has hired a jury selection expert to help trim the list and a detailed questionnaire was sent to all potential jury members Friday. Several questions address whether the jurors have dealt personally with roommate issues, hold any biases against gays or people of Indian descent, and whether the jurors themselves have "ever had a prank or practical joke played on you."
There are nearly 150 people listed as potential witnesses, including more than 100 for the prosecution. First and foremost is Molly Wei.
Wei had known Ravi since grade school and reconnected with him when she saw his name in the hallway of her freshman dorm. During high school, she played volleyball and sang in the choir before enrolling in the six-year pharmacy program at Rutgers. Her testimony will likely address Ravi's motivation for spying on Clementi on the night on Sept. 19.
The other highly anticipated witness is the man identified only as M.B, a 25-year-old man whom Clementi met on an online hook-up site. According to one of Clementi's online exchanges, M.B. was not openly gay and worked two jobs at the time. He lived off campus and was initially hesitant about the rendezvous in the freshman dormitory. But because of the expense and inconvenience of a hotel room rendezvous, they agreed to meet in Clementi's room.
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman has allowed the proceedings to be televised, but he has ordered the cameras to be removed from the courtroom when M.B. takes the stand, in order to protect his identity. And though M.B.'s full name appears on a questionnaire presented to prospective jurors, he has ordered them not to disclose that name to anyone.
Ravi not only faces significant jail time, but also deportation if he is found guilty after what is expected to be a four-week trial. His younger brother Jay is the family's only U.S. citizen, which has added an international dimension to the case that the New Delhi Television network has already begun to cover extensively.
"This story has all the levels necessary to cause a media storm -- young college students from a big university, bias intimidation, ? pressure from advocacy groups, and family members saying he was just an innocent foolish kid," Honecker said.