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.”
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 …
Yang: You guys really need to talk…
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:
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
when I remembered what actually happened
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.