NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate’s intimate liaison with another man began yesterday 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 the bullying of young gays, committed suicide days after the alleged spying in September 2010.
Ravi’s lawyer said his client is not 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 did not 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 opening statement, 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 argued that “the defendant’s acts were not a prank, they were not an accident, and they were not a mistake. They were mean-spirited, they were malicious, and they were criminal.’’
It was not 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 would be able watch a second liaison.
McClure said Ravi began telling friends that he was unhappy he would have a gay roommate soon after he received his Rutgers housing assignment in August 2010.
The first prosecution witness 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 did not 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 did not.
But one, Cassandra Cicco, said Ravi told her that he streamed the video to see whether Clementi was gay - as he suspected.