Former Rutgers Student Faces Hate Crime Trial

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Friday in the trial of Dharun Ravi. The former Rutgers University student is charged with using a webcam to spy on his roommate Tyler Clementi, who later committed suicide. Ravi faces 15 counts. The most serious charge, bias intimidation, is a hate crime, which carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Jury selection is due to begin tomorrow in the trial of Dharun Ravi. He faces up to 10 years in prison for something he did while still a student at Rutgers University. Ravi is now charged with using a webcam to spy on his roommate, who later made national news when he committed suicide. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: We may never know why Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge in September of 2010. But we do know that initial media reports about the case were wrong in several important respects.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The young man who leapt from a bridge after his college roommate secretly broadcast his gay sexual encounter live over the Internet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: After his roommate videotaped him being intimate with another man and put it on the Internet. CBS News national correspondents...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: He was outed as being gay on the Internet, and he killed himself.

ROSE: In fact, Tyler Clementi had already come out, at least to his family and some friends. And the reality of what happened in the freshman dorm room he shared with Dharun Ravi is also more complex than it first appeared. Ravi allegedly set up a webcam to spy on Clementi while he was hugging and kissing another man.

But Ravi's lawyers say the resulting images were seen by just a few people and were never broadcast anywhere. Here's defense attorney Steven Altman, speaking to reporters after a pretrial hearing in December.

STEVEN ALTMAN: Simple principle of law, simple principle of life: He's innocent. He's not guilty. That's why he rejected the plea.

ROSE: Ravi turned down a plea deal that could have kept him out of jail. Instead, he's set to go to trial on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy. The most serious charge is bias intimidation, a hate crime which carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison.

The prosecution's case may rest on a long chain of electronic messages from the computers of both men that were made public. They paint Ravi - who was then a 19-year-old from suburban Plainsboro, New Jersey - as both disgusted and fascinated by Clementi's sexual orientation.

SUZANNE GOLDBERG: It seems clear that Ravi would not have done what he did had Tyler Clementi not been gay. On the other hand, college students do many stupid things, and not all of them are hate crimes.

ROSE: Suzanne Goldberg directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia University. She says this is a complex case that will be watched closely.

GOLDBERG: The prosecutor's decision to charge this as a hate crime has been a wakeup call for prosecutors around the country, saying look at these seriously. The fact that somebody uses a webcam does not insulate the actions from being as hateful as somebody using a can of spray paint to spray a swastika on somebody's home, for example.

ROSE: Gay rights activists pushed hard for hate crimes charges, which they hope will send a strong message to other would-be bullies. But not everyone thinks the charges are appropriate. Marc Poirier teaches law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

MARC POIRIER: It simply doesn't fit the standard model of hate crimes. It's intrusive. It strikes me as stupid roommate stuff. But none of that is particularly violent. Throwing the book at him - at least with regard to the hate crimes, which is what I'm focused on - is problematic.

ROSE: Poirier says it's important to remember that Ravi is not charged with causing Clementi's death. A lawyer for the Clementi family declined to be interviewed for this story, although Tyler Clementi's brother James did speak to CNN last week.

JAMES CLEMENTI: We're just hoping for some kind of justice in the court system and putting our faith in the prosecution to do what they need to do.

ROSE: The Clementis have not said exactly what justice would mean for them, but it might begin with an apology, something the Clementis say they have never received from Dharun Ravi or his family. Ravi's trial could last a month or more.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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