Why Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers Student Who Spied on Tyler Clementi, Should Cut a Deal

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Feb. 14 2012 5:31 PM

Dharun Ravi Should Cut a Deal

We may never know why Tyler Clementi jumped off the GW Bridge. Next week’s trial of his roommate won’t offer any answers either.

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Clementi was following Ravi on Twitter, and he found the “yay” post the next day. In a long chat that evening with his friend Hannah Yang, he told her about it, and at first she was more disturbed than he was.

Clementi: I guess just curious.
Yang: That’s still really sketchy …
Clementi: yah
Yang: You guys really need to talk…
Clementi: hahaha
I guess
but its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything
he just like took a five sec peep lol

And a few minutes later:

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Yang: I would feel seriously violated
Clementi: like wtf [what the fuck] did he think was gonna happen …
oh yah I gotcha
when I first read the tweet
I defs felt violated
but then
when I remembered what actually happened
idk
doesn’t seem soooo bad lol

Yang urged Clementi to report Ravi to their resident advisor, coaching him through taking a screenshot of Ravi’s Twitter account (“don’t crop or adjust”). Clementi said he would take her advice and closed, “I’m really excited to see what the next tweet will be/hee hee.” At about 4 a.m., he filled out the online form for a room change, reporting that his roommate had spied on him with a webcam.

Later that day, Tuesday, Sept. 21, Clementi texted Ravi to ask if he could use their room again. “Yeah no problem,” Ravi wrote back, and then made it clear he viewed this as another chance to spy. “Anyone with ichat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12,” he tweeted in the early evening. “Yes, it’s happening again.” To a friend at Cornell, Ravi texted “people are having a viewing party.” This is the most upsetting behavior in the court records. It’s premeditated, and Ravi is clearly trying to embarrass his roommate and boost his own status in the process. The “viewing party,” however, didn’t come off. Ravi told the police that he disabled his webcam beforehand. That seems unlikely, based on the timing of his texts. But Tyler, who was still following Ravi’s tweets, protected his own privacy by unplugging his roommate’s computer—and shutting down the power strip for good measure—before M.B. arrived.

By this time, Clementi had talked to his resident advisor, who asked him, appropriately, if he felt comfortable going back to his room or wanted to sleep elsewhere that night. Clementi opted to go back to his room. He met up with M.B. as planned. In the morning, Clementi talked to his mother on the phone, and she says there was nothing remarkable about the conversation. He went to a three-hour orchestra rehearsal, and no one noticed anything special there, either. Ravi saw Clementi in their room late that afternoon. It’s not clear if they spoke to each other. That night, he went to the George Washington Bridge and at 8:42 p.m. posted the status update on Facebook “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

Clementi left behind a suicide note and files on his computer called Gah.docx, sorry.docx, and Why is everything so painful.docx, written in July and the beginning of September. Those documents haven’t been turned over to the defense, because Ravi, after all, isn’t charged with causing Clementi’s death. This is why it’s unlikely the trial will explain why Clementi made the terrible decision to jump.

Instead, Ravi’s trial will mainly focus on two legal questions. The first is whether he is guilty of invasion of privacy, which New Jersey defines as observing someone, without consent, “under circumstances in which a reasonable person would know that another may expose intimate parts or engage in sexual penetration or sexual contact.” Does “intimate parts” and “sexual contact” translate to watching two men kiss with their shirts off, given that they “may” do more? The second question will be whether Ravi is guilty of “bias intimidation.” Did Ravi harass Clementi because he was gay? Did Clementi feel intimidated because of it?

The answers to these questions aren’t slam dunks, but you can see why a prosecutor would want to ask them. The dilemma of this case is that while Ravi would not have been investigated by the police were it not for Clementi’s suicide, once the cops read Ravi’s texts and tweets, and found out about the web cam, it’s hard to see how they could have let him off without criminal charges. We haven’t even mentioned yet that when Ravi found out from the resident advisor about Clementi’s request for a room change, he deleted one of his incriminating tweets (“I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”) and changed “Anyone with ichat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12,” to “People with ichat don’t you dare video chat me from 930 to 12.” This is the basis for yet another charge, evidence tampering.

We don’t think Dharun Ravi should go to prison. His life has already been turned upside down—he left Rutgers at 19, he is living at home with his parents, and his misdeeds will follow him wherever he goes. But we understand why prosecutors are asking him to admit to some wrongdoing. It’s a mess, this case, and at this point it is mostly up to Ravi to extricate himself from it. It’s probably hard for Ravi, who has never been in legal trouble, to accept the idea of pleading guilty to what would have been written off as a prank if the police hadn’t gotten involved. It’s tough. But Ravi did do something wrong, even if it may not be much connected with Tyler’s death, and to go to trial is a big roll of the dice.

In a testimonial to Clementi in Out Magazine, Tyler’s older brother, Jimmy, remembered the rush of relief he felt on the Fourth of July before Tyler died, when he and his brother first told each other, out loud, that they were each gay. “We talked for hours about sex, relationships, bars, fake IDs, homophobia, everything that had been off-limits before,” Jimmy wrote. “I was really taken aback by how assured and poised he was, how much better he understood himself and his desires than I did at 18.” No wonder then that Jimmy, like the rest of us, says that his brother’s decision to commit suicide still confuses him: “I know you and I know that is not who you are. And that is never how I will think of you.” It’s hard to see what good Ravi’s trial can do for Tyler’s memory, or for anything at all.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Kevin Lerner teaches at Marist College and is a Ph.D. student at Rutgers. Tyler Clementi was his cousin.

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