If Dharun Ravi goes on trial next week for invading the privacy of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge to his death a year and a half ago, he could wind up in prison for a long time. That will gin up the drama at the trial, which may be televised and could run for a month. A harsh punishment will surely gratify people who think that Ravi bullied Clementi to death. If that’s your view, then you probably think Ravi is getting what he deserved.
The problem is that the reasons behind Clementi’s death in September 2010 remain unknown. In spite of the intense swirl of publicity around this case, we still don’t know why this shy, talented violinist chose to take his own life. And the trial in all likelihood won’t solve the mystery, either. Instead, it will principally be about whether Ravi, who acted like a big, fat, spying jerk of a roommate in his first few giddy weeks of college, was homophobic enough to be guilty of criminal bias and intimidation. If the jury finds that the answer is yes, he may well do serious time and could be deported.
What’s most bewildering about this possibility is that Ravi and his family seem to be inviting it. New Jersey has offered Ravi a plea offer that would spare him prison time, offer some assurance against deportation, and not require he admit to criminal bias. And he has turned it down, exposing himself to up to 10 years in prison.
To understand why that’s so hard to fathom, let’s go back to the weeks before Clementi’s awful plunge. Clementi and Ravi left a long electronic trail that was made public pretrial, so it’s possible to read hundreds of pages about what this odd-couple pair of freshmen were doing and thinking. When they found out they’d be roommates at Rutgers, Ravi and Clementi separately checked each other out online. Clementi learned that Ravi was South Asian, and wrote to a friend that his roommate’s parents seemed “sooo Indian first gen americanish,” and that they “defs owna dunkin”—a Dunkin Donuts. Ravi wrote to a friend about Clementi, “FUCK MY LIFE / He’s gay,” but continued, “I’m just like LOL / Maybe I’m still a little buzzed.”
As Ian Parker pointed out in his detailed New Yorker article about the case, one of the saddest things about it is that in the three weeks they were roommates, Ravi and Clementi seem to have rarely talked. Ravi was often out late partying. Clementi was painfully shy. “i wonder if dharun would open his curtains/ but gah/I’ll never ask … to much confrontation,” he Gchatted to a friend.
Clementi had come out to his parents shortly before college began. He wrote to a friend that his father had accepted the news, and “Its a good thing dad is ok w/it or I would be in serious trouble / mom has basically completely rejected me.” Perhaps that has something to do with the culture in which Jane Clementi was raised. The family comes from a working class, Italian Catholic background, and most of her relatives still live within a five-mile radius of each other, outside of Paterson, N.J., the now-faded industrial city where Tyler’s maternal great-grandparents lived and worked after coming to the United States. It’s the sort of physical proximity that tightens family bonds, but also inhibits a softening of mores from one generation to another. Jane Clementi told the Today Show that when she learned Tyler was gay, she felt as if she’d been kicked in the stomach, but that they continued to have a relationship and she never felt she rejected him.
At Rutgers, Clementi used a Web hook-up site to find M.B., who he described as a 25-year-old man who lived off-campus and wasn’t out. Clementi asked Ravi if he could use the room on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 19, and when Ravi saw M.B. arrive, he got freaked out. He went across the hall to his friend Molly Wei’s dorm room and said he was worried that M.B. might steal his iPad. This is when the impulse to spy kicked in. Ravi had set iChat on his computer so that it could accept incoming video chat requests automatically. From Wei’s computer, he connected to his own screen, and for a few seconds, Ravi and Wei watched Clementi and M.B. from the waist up, shirtless and kissing. “We were kind of both kind of in shock, because for me, anyway, I’ve never seen anything like that.” Ravi later told the police. A few minutes after his glimpse of his roommate on his webcam, 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.”