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Rutgers Spycam Trial: A college prank or an act of hate?

From Left to Right: Molly Wei, Tyler Clementi, Dharun Ravi (CBS/Personal Photo)

From left to right, Molly Wei, Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi.
CBS

(CBS) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - One of the first things you notice when you look around the New Jersey courtroom where Dharun Ravi is on trial is just how young and out of place he appears. So do most of the witnesses who have testified against him.

Pictures: Tyler Clementi
Pictures: Rutgers Spycam Trial

Ravi, 20, is on trial for using his computer webcam back in 2010 to spy on his Rutgers University freshman roommate, Tyler Clementi, who had brought another man into their shared dorm room for an intimate encounter. 

Two days after discovering that he had been spied on, Clementi took a train to New York City and committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi is not charged with Clementi's death, he is charged with invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, along with evidence and witness tampering. If convicted, he could spend as many as ten years in prison.

When Ravi was first charged in September 2010, most people who read or heard about the case condemned him as a bully. Many thought of him as a young man who tortured his new roommate because of a bias against gays. As I sit in the courtroom, however, the evidence presented by the prosecution presents a much more complicated picture of the young man sitting at the defense table.

One thing is for certain: Ravi loved technology and social networking. He expressed his thoughts, ideas, and impulses in hundreds of texts, instant messages, tweets and in email chats. Now, many of those words have become evidence and are being used against him. And twelve strangers, who know little about him or how he expresses himself, will have to decide whether he's an insensitive, impulsive young man who pulled off a mean college prank or a vicious homophobe.

Like most college freshmen, Ravi was curious about his new roommate and researched him. When he suspected that his new roommate was gay, Ravi talked about it constantly with his friends, using exclamation points and capital letters, which in the online world usually means shock or dismay. Yet, even the friends and former classmates who testified against Ravi in court all said that he never said anything derogatory or malicious about Clementi or against gays in general. Was he just gossiping dramatically for attention or expressing animus?

The evidence shows that Ravi did use his camera to "eye" what went on in the dorm room when he was gone. On September 19, 2010, he went to the room of a friend, Molly Wei, and both watched Clementi from her computer for a few seconds before turning it off. They were both "shocked" by what they saw, Wei later told the court which bolstered the defense position that Ravi wasn't expecting to see his roommate having sex. If that was the only time that Ravi aimed his camera at his roommate's side of the room, he might not be on trial. But two days later, on the 21st, Ravi allegedly did it again. According to damaging testimony in court, he enlisted the help of a friend to make sure his webcam was angled just right and Clementi's bed was in view. There is evidence that he used Twitter to encourage people to watch. But for some reason, the webcam did not work that night. Either Tyler Clementi, who knew his roommate was spying on him, turned it off, or Dharun Ravi did.

The law in New Jersey that makes spying a crime says that the perpetrator has to be using the camera to observe or photograph a sex act. The defense says that Ravi had no such intention. Ravi had seen his roommate bring an "older", "sketchy" man to the room and he was just worried about his Apple iPad and other belongings that he left behind in his room.

Last Friday, that man came to the courtroom and testified. His appearance and testimony only seemed to add to the "grayness" of the evidence. Since the witness was not allowed to be photographed, I went to the courtroom to see him myself. The man, known only as M.B., was certainly older than either Tyler Clementi or Dharun Ravi, by as much as ten years. However, on the stand, he didn't appear to be "sketchy" or "creepy" or fit any of the other adjectives expressed by students who saw him. He was neatly dressed in a blue and white striped shirt. He was well-spoken and sounded intelligent as he calmly told the court about the three times he had been to Clementi's dorm. He was not emotional, but did tell the jury that when he left Clementi's room the second time, he noticed a group of about five students staring at him and he found it "unsettling."

The jurors, many who appear to be in their thirties and older, will now have to decide whether it was reasonable for a then 18-year -old Ravi to see him as a possible threat.

Ravi's trial is expected to last another two weeks. Most observers expect his attorneys to put on a vigorous defense. Attorney Steven Altman has already managed to get the state's witnesses to add to the defense case as well. The big question left is whether Dharun Ravi will take the stand in his own defense. Conventional wisdom says that he will not, but there hasn't been a lot about this trial that is conventional.

Meanwhile, James Clementi, the spitting image of his younger brother Tyler, has been in the courtroom every day. Ravi may not be charged in connection with Tyler's death but the jurors have a daily reminder of the life that was lost.

As I was leaving the courtroom on Friday, I was surprised to see Dharun Ravi sitting on a bench in the hallway with his attorney. I went up to them and introduced myself, first Steven Altman and then Ravi. I can't imagine that anyone involved in this case feels warmly towards the press, but Ravi stood up, and as he looked me in the eye, he politely shook my hand and said "hello."

Complete coverage of Tyler Clementi and the Dharun Ravi trial on Crimesider

  • Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"

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