The trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate liaison with another man opened Friday with questions about whether the defendant had a problem with gay people.
A prosecutor told jurors that Dharun Ravi, now 19, spied on roommate Tyler Clementi and acted maliciously "to deprive him of his dignity." Clementi, in an act that sparked a national conversation about bullying of young gays, committed suicide days after the alleged spying in September 2010.
Ravi's lawyer insisted his client isn't bigoted. "He may be stupid at times," defense attorney Steven Altman said in his opening statement. "He's an 18-year-old boy, but he's certainly not a criminal."
Early witnesses testified that Ravi expressed discomfort about having a gay roommate, but they didn't know him to have a problem with gay people generally.
His attitude matters in the trial because the 15 charges Ravi faces include bias intimidation, which can carry a 10-year prison sentence. To get a conviction on that charge, prosecutors must persuade jurors that Ravi acted out of bias against gays.
Ravi also is charged with invasion of privacy. And he is accused of trying to cover his tracks by taking measures including deleting a Twitter message and instructing a witness what to tell police. He is not charged with Clementi's death.
In her half-hour opening statement, First Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure did not mention Clementi's suicide.
But she said that Ravi's actions were intended to victimize his roommate.
"They were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's sexual orientation and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's private sexual activity," she said.
Altman said his client saw only seconds' worth of images of Clementi and another man hugging.
"Dharun never intimidated anybody, you'll see that," Altman said. "He never transmitted any images. He never harassed his roommate, he never ridiculed his roommate, he never said anything bad about his roommate."
McClure tried to dispel that. "The defendant's acts were not a prank, they were not an accident and they were not a mistake," she said. "They were mean-spirited, they were malicious and they were criminal."
It wasn't just that he used his webcam to see what Clementi was up to, she said; he also posted on Twitter to tell others about it and later told them how they'd be able watch a second liaison.
McClure said Ravi began telling friends that he was unhappy he'd have a gay roommate soon after he received his Rutgers housing assignment in August 2010.
The first witness called by prosecutors was Austin Chung, a high school friend of Ravi's who testified that Ravi told him about seeing Clementi "making out with some dude" via webcam. On cross-examination, Chung, a student at Stevens Institute of Technology, said he didn't know Ravi to have a problem with gay people.
Three other witnesses, all Rutgers students, followed Chung on the stand.
Altman asked each if they knew Ravi to speak against gays. All said he didn't.
But one, Cassandra Cicco, said Ravi told her that he streamed the video to see whether Clementi was gay — as he suspected.
"He said he didn't have any problem with homosexuals and in fact he had a really good friend who was homosexual," Cicco said.
She said she and a group of a half-dozen students were shown a one-second snippet of streaming video. She wanted to see it, she said, out of curiosity.
She said that there were two men in the view and at least one had his shirt off.
"Someone pressed 'end' on the feed and it ended abruptly and we're like, that happened," she said.
Another student who lived in the dorm said Ravi told him he'd seen Clementi with another man on his webcam.
"It was pretty crazy and scandalous," Alvin Artha said. "He described the guy he invited over as older. And that was more the scandalous part than that he had invited another male."
The case was so well known that it took four days to seat a jury of 16 — including four alternates. Just before opening statements, one more juror was excused after telling the judge that he needed to change an answer he'd given in a questionnaire.