Social media spotlighted in Rutgers suicide case

Dharun Ravi, accused of bullying his college roommate, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide, faces trial.
CBS News

Jury selection is underway in the trial of Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers University freshman accused of bullying his college roommate, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in September 2010. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours Mystery" has been following the case.

Clementi's death became an international symbol of the consequences of bullying and homophobia. The trial of the young man accused of bullying him is unique because much of the evidence that will be used against him was found online in social media.

Nineteen-year old Dharun Ravi faces 15 counts of invasion of privacy, evidence and witness tampering, and bias intimidation -- a hate crime which could land him in prison for ten years.

Ravi's trial is likely to renew the debate between those who see his actions as a prank gone too far and those who see him as a vicious bully.

Like so many teenagers, Dharun Ravi communicated incessantly online, and every tweet, text instant message, and email he wrote remains in cyberspace. Prosecutors were able to retrieve them and will now use his own words against him to prove that he harassed Tyler Clementi because he believed his roommate was gay.

Jury selection scheduled to begin in the trial of former Rutgers' student Dharun Ravi
Dharun Ravi, suspect in Tyler Clementi suicide case, set to appear in court

According to court records made public, even before he met Clementi, Ravi chatted online to a friend "(expletive) MY LIFE/He's gay."

Later, Ravi twice focused his computer camera at Clementi's bed when Clementi had a man in the room, the second time posting on the social media site Twitter: "Yes, it's happening again," urging his friends to watch a live video feed.

Two days after Clementi discovered that he had been spied on by Ravi, he took a train to New York City. At 8:42 pm that evening, he left this message on Facebook: "jumping off the gw bridge sorry"

Clementi's body was discovered in the Hudson River a week later.

The tragic outcome puts Dharun Ravi's actions in a harsher light.

" When you talk to people on the street or go on the web, it's still often perceived as Ravi did something to cause Clementi to kill himself," said law professor Marc Poirier.

"How unusual is this amount of digital evidence?" asked Moriarty.

"I think it's unusual that so much of the evidence is going to turn on tweets and Facebook," he said.

Ravi's defense is also expected to rely on the digital record using Clementi's own online postings to show that he did not feel intimidated: "doesn't seem soooo bad lol," he chatted to a friend, after he realized he'd been spied on.

Shortly after Clementi posted his goodbye on Facebook, Dharun Ravi sent him a text that read in part:

"I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it...I don't want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding."

Tyler Clementi most likely never got a chance to read it.

Moriarty added: "Sadly, these were two young men who shared a room for three weeks and did more of their talking to other people on computers than they did to each other. They barely spoke at all."

When CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor characterized social media as the centerpiece of the case, Moriarty said: "And what is really worrisome here is that prosecutors are using this kind of evidence to actually to increase the number of charges that are brought. In this case, Dharun Ravi was first charged with just invasion of privacy. When they looked at his tweets, texts and emails, they added on bias intimidation, which is a hate crime, which is also a charge that carries a much heavier sentence."

  • Erin Moriarty
    Erin Moriarty

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"