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Judge defends sentence in webcam spy case

After fielding criticism in emails, blogs and newspaper columns, a judge this week defended his decision to give a 30-day jail sentence to the former Rutgers student who used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman said the punishment is harsh enough to deter others from doing the same thing, but not so severe that it will dump 20-year-old Dharun Ravi into prison with hardened criminals.

“I can’t find it in me to remand him to state prison that houses people convicted of offenses such as murder, armed robbery and rape,” Berman said. “I don’t believe that fits this case. I believe he has to be punished and he will be.”

Ravi reported to jail on May 31 to start serving his sentence.

In March, a jury found Ravi guilty of 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. He used his webcam in September 2010 to stream – and view – seconds of live video of roommate Tyler Clementi and another man kissing, and told others they could watch another encounter two days later. Clementi jumped to his death from New York City’s George Washington Bridge just days after the ordeal began.

Some gay rights activists have portrayed his story as a prime example of the consequences of bullying young gays. And Ravi’s defenders see him as a scapegoat for a death that they don’t believe he was responsible for – and was not charged with.

Berman said he wanted to explain further the sentence he handed down last week largely because it’s being appealed by prosecutors, who say it’s too lenient, and he wanted to provide appellate judges for a clear rationale for his decision.

His amplification came during a hearing to clear the way for Ravi to report to jail – even though he could have remained free while prosecutors appeal the sentence. His lawyer said he would also begin working on his 300 hours of community service and start paying the more than $11,000 in fines and assessments that are part of his punishment.

Ravi requested permission on May 29 to start serving as he apologized for the first time for his actions, which he described in a statement as “thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish.” In court May 30, Ravi answered questions from his lawyer and Berman but did not say any more about his apology.

Ravi’s lawyer Joseph Benedict said he’s still appealing the conviction altogether.

To start serving while the prosecutor’s appeal looms, Ravi had to agree to waive his protection from double jeopardy. He is now not allowed to argue that he’s already served his time if prosecutors prevail on their appeal and give him a longer sentence.

It’s not clear whether he will serve the full 30 days. In most cases, New Jersey county jail inmates with 30-day sentences automatically have them reduced by 10 days for good behavior. A warden at Middlesex County Jail was not immediately available to say whether that would apply to Ravi.

Clementi’s parents, who had been fixtures in the courtroom for Ravi’s previous appearances and throughout a trial that lasted three weeks, did not attend on May 30.

During the hearing, Berman reiterated something he said last week when he sentenced Ravi: Even though bias intimidation is usually referred to as a hate-crime, he does not believe that title fits this case. “I don’t defend his actions against Tyler Clementi, nor does he,” Berman said. “I don’t think it was motivated by hatred, and I’ll stand on that.”

The judge said that he believes lawmakers who crafted New Jersey’s bias intimidation laws expected it to be applied mostly in cases involving assaults or violence – not one like this.

For that reason, he said, justice would be served by handing down a sentence well under the usual 5-to-10 year range for a second-degree crime such as bias intimidation.

And he said he sees the $10,000 he ordered Ravi to pay to a group for bias-crime victims as a major part of the punishment.

Berman, a former prosecutor in the county, clashed in court with Middlesex First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure over both the need for a written order on the day’s proceedings and the wording of it.

He also asked the prosecutor what she believed an appropriate sentence would have been.

She said five years.

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Former Rutgers student sentenced to 30 days in Webcam spy case

Former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail today for using a webcam to spy on Tyler Clementi, Ravi’s gay roommate who committed suicide in September 2010.

Ravi activated a dorm-room Webcam to spy on Clementi in a romantic encounter with another man and encouraged others to spy, via the Web, on his roommate. Soon after, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

After a four-week trial in New Jersey, Ravi was convicted in March of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and bias intimidation.

When he entered the courtroom this morning, he faced up to 10 years in prison and deportation to India, where he was born and remains a citizen, though he has lived most of his life in New Jersey.

The case has turned both Clementi and Ravi, who for just three weeks shared a Rutgers University dorm room they were randomly assigned, into widely known symbols. Clementi is seen as an example of what can happen to young gays who are too often bullied even as acceptance of gays has increased. Ravi has been portrayed as a young man victimized by overzealous prosecutors who reacted to a tragedy by piling on charges.

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman sentenced Ravi after hearing emotional statements from Clementi’s family and friends and Ravi’s family and friends.

Ravi’s mother, through tears, blamed the media for misconstruing the facts and “ripping” apart her son, who cannot safely go out in public. After her statement, she hugged her son, who declined to address the court.

Clementi’s mother, through tears, said, “The devastation of the loss of my son was more than I could bear… I felt like a piece of me died.”

The judge, after hearing the statements, stressed the guilty verdicts from the jury and the lack of an apology from Ravi. He said Ravi’s pre-sentencing letter was unimpressive and inadequate and that, while he might some day clear his record, Ravi could never expunge the pain and harm he caused.

He said the sentence he imposed was balanced, constructive and would hopefully provide “a measure of closure” and then announced that Ravi would serve 30 days in jail, plus probation.

The judge also recommended that Ravi not be deported, but observed the decision rests with the federal government.

Ravi’s lawyers have said there will be an appeal.

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New Jersey spycam case stirs debate over hate crime laws

There was a verdict in the wrenching Rutgers webcam spying case, but no resolution to a broader question that hovered over it: To what extent are hate crime laws a help or a hindrance in the pursuit of justice?

The gist of the verdict: Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was convicted Friday of anti-gay intimidation for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate’s love life. The roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, threw himself to his death off a bridge not long after realizing he’d been watched.

While disavowing any sense of celebration, some gay-rights leaders commended the outcome as a vindication of hate crimes legislation.

“We do believe this verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality.

In other quarters, there was dismay at the use of New Jersey’s hate crimes law in the case, and at the verdict that could saddle 20-year-old Ravi with a prison sentence of 10 years or more despite a dearth of evidence that he hated gays.

“It illustrates why hate crime laws are not a good idea,” said James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University. “They were passed to be admired and not to be used.”

A longtime gay rights activist in New York, Bill Dobbs, also was troubled by the case.

“As hate crime prosecutions mount, the problems with these laws are becoming more obvious … how they compromise cherished constitutional principles,” Dobbs said. “Now a person gets tried not just for misdeeds, but for who they are, what they believe, what their character is.”

Hate crime laws have been an American institution for decades, and are on the books in 45 states. Generally, they provide enhanced penalties for crimes committed out of racial, ethnic or religious basis, while the laws in about 30 states, including New Jersey, also cover offenses based on sexual orientation.

In 2009, Congress followed suit, expanding federal hate-crimes legislation to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The bill is known as the Matthew Shepard Act, in honor of the gay college student brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998.

According to the latest FBI statistics, 1,528 people were targeted by anti-gay hate crimes in 2010 – accounting for almost 19 percent of all reported hate crimes.

Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights legal group, said the Ravi verdict underscored the value of hate crime legislation.

“Hate crime laws are public statements that our government and our society recognize the deep wounds inflicted when violence is motivated by prejudice and hate,” said the group’s deputy legal director, Hayley Gorenberg. “The verdict … demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one’s hand.”

Asked about the debate over hate crime laws, Gorenberg stressed the need to consider the plight of victimized gays and lesbians, especially young people.

“If this is the case that propels us to wholesale reconsidering of hate crime laws, we’re missing the boat,” she said. “I’d urge people to rethink a different question – what’s going on in our schools and society such that we have young people experiencing invasions of their privacy, harassment, discrimination and despair, sometimes ending in tragedy.”

Some conservative legal groups campaigned vigorously against the Matthew Shepard Act, dubbing it a “thought crimes” bill that would potentially criminalize anti-gay speech as well as anti-gay violence.

“These laws serve only one purpose – they criminalize thoughts and beliefs that are not considered politically correct,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.

“There’s a clash and a conflict – I don’t know that it’s here yet, but it’s coming – with freedom of expression and freedom of religion,” Stanley said.

Jacobs, the NYU professor, has depicted hate crime laws as unnecessary and counterproductive, albeit popular among certain politicians.

“It’s one thing to pass them, and everyone is proud to say they’re opposed to hate and bigotry,” he said. “Yet occasionally these laws are used in cases like this (the Ravi trial)… What he did was immature, stupid, wrong, but to make this a poster case for hate crimes shows the weakness, the whole misapplication of the idea.”

For the American Civil Liberties Union, which strives to defend both freedom of expression and gay rights, hate crimes legislation can raise some complicated questions.

Chris Anders, the ALCU’s senior legislative counsel for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, said the organization supports aspects of federal hate crimes policy that allow for federal intervention in cases where state or local officials are deemed to be remiss.

However, he said the ACLU has been concerned about the possibility that hate crimes trials could make use of evidence not directly related to the crime – a defendant’s past comments or reading material, for example.

Anders said the ALCU withdrew its support for the Matthew Shepard Act because it did not include certain language addressing this concern.

“In our view, hate crimes statutes focused on violent acts can be constitutional, whereas those focused on discriminatory speech are not,” Anders said.

He recalled that during debate on the Matthew Shepard Act, many Republicans assailed it and many Democrats lauded it.

“Most of these things are much more nuanced, and it’s hard to get people to focus on that,” Anders said.

Clementi’s partner testifies he saw webcam

A webcam was noticeably aimed at a Rutgers University freshman and his male guest during their intimate episode in a dorm room, the man testified March 2 at the privacy-invasion trial of the student’s roommate.

The man, who has been shrouded in mystery throughout the high-profile case and has been identified only as M.B., appeared in a New Jersey court looking clean-cut and not matching the description of the overweight, “sketchy” or homeless-looking man students have said they saw visiting Tyler Clementi’s room.

“I had just glanced over my shoulder and I noticed there was a webcam that was faced toward the direction of the bed,” the man testified, later noting there was no light indicating it was on. “Just being in a compromising position and seeing a camera lens – it just stuck out to me.”

He had met Clementi, 18, through a social networking site for gay men in August 2010, he said, and he texted repeatedly after their third and final rendezvous. He wanted to see him again, though he didn’t know his last name at the time.

“I didn’t know it until I picked up a newspaper,” he said.

Clementi’s name wasn’t in the paper until about a week later, when it was reported that he had jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River.

The man’s testimony came in the trial of Clementi’s roommate, 20-year-old Dharun Ravi, who is charged with bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and other crimes. the India-born Ravi is not charged in Clementi’s death, but it was the suicide that helped bring the case national attention.

M.B. and Clementi chatted online initially, he said, and their first in-person meeting was in Clementi’s dorm room on Sept. 17 – two days before the alleged spying.

The judge did not allow photographs of M.B. to be taken in the courthouse, barred any audio or video of him to be recorded, and said he would be identified in court only by his initials. The man’s lawyer had successfully fought to conceal his identity because he’s considered a victim of an alleged sex crime. Invasion of privacy is classified as a sex crime in New Jersey.

Jurors, though, were given his whole name to make sure none knew him.

The trim man appeared in court in a button-down shirt. His hair was closely cropped, and he didn’t have the goatee that some described him as having.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the man’s identity, there was an unusually large media contingent packed into the Middlesex County Courthouse for what was already a high-profile trial.

After a full day’s testimony – most of it during testy cross-examination by a defense layer – many mysteries remained. The man said he was 32 years old. He disclosed little else on his own. In an apparent oversight, jurors were shown a picture of Clementi’s cellphone, which revealed what appeared to be a nickname the student had entered for him.

His lawyer, Richard Pompelio of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, said he doesn’t believe he is married and did not know whether he was out as a gay man.

“He’s a fine young man who came here under horrible circumstances to tell the truth,” Pompelio said outside the courtroom during a break in testimony.

He said M.B. had a fledgling relationship with Clementi and learned about his death from hearing it on the radio.

In court, M.B. himself said he lived about a 20-minute drive from Clementi’s dorm and was starting a new job on Sept. 20, 2010.

He testified that he met Clementi in his dorm room three times. The first was on Sept. 17, when he said Ravi was not expected home until the middle of the night. He said he was careful to leave before Ravi was due back. “I made sure to leave well before 2 a.m. as to not cause any conflict,” he said.

The second was Sept. 19, the date of the alleged spying – and the time he said he noticed the webcam.

He said he and Clementi were naked and had sex that night. People who saw webcam images of his encounter with Clementi have testified that they saw no more than a few seconds of video and that the men were not seen doing anything more graphic than kissing. At one point, some said, their shirts were off, but their pants were on.

The man told jurors there were about five students looking at him as he left the building on Sept. 19.

“Had they been in the street or somewhere other than this building I would have asked them why they were looking at me,” he said. He called their actions “unsettling.”

Ravi’s defense lawyer, Steven Altman, repeatedly asked M.B. whether he wanted to meet Clementi for a movie or a cup of coffee – or go anywhere besides the dorm.

“I preferred just to wait until we could have the privacy of a room, wherever that room might be,” he said.

His home often would not work, he said.

The third time he met Clementi was two days later, when Ravi is charged with attempted invasion of privacy. There’s been testimony that the webcam feed did not work that night. According to court papers filed previously, it was unplugged.

M.B. testified that he heard comments from the courtyard outside the dorm that night that bothered him. But he was not allowed to say what it was.

He testified that he wanted to see Clementi again. “As far as whether I was going to return to that building to see him, I felt a little uneasy about it,” he said.

Ravi faces 15 criminal counts. The most serious is bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Much of the testimony so far has come from college students. Several said Ravi told them that he’d used a webcam to see what was happening in the room he shared with Clementi on Sept. 19 and that he set up the camera again Sept. 21.

But none said that he had general malice toward gays.

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Rutgers spy cam trial continues

A former Rutgers University student who initially was charged with invasion of privacy for using a webcam to spy on another student who later killed himself told jurors Feb. 28 that police paperwork got it wrong when she was arrested.

AP reports that Molly Wei testified she was charged with recording and broadcasting video of a student’s intimate dorm-room encounter with another man. But she said she did neither, though she did admit to viewing live-streamed images.

Wei was on the stand for the second day in the bias intimidation and invasion of privacy trial of former student Dharun Ravi. Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge days after the alleged spying in September 2010.

Today, CNN and AP were reporting that a key witness – the man that Clementi had an intimate encounter with – would testify.

Wei entered a program to keep her record clean if she complies with a list of conditions, including truthful testimony.

On Feb. 28, she detailed her statements to police.

She said campus police called her, then picked her up in an unmarked car after class on Sept. 23, 2010, after Clementi went missing.

At first, she said, she was nervous about being told to get into a beige Cadillac and texted her boyfriend at another school to get in touch with police if he didn’t hear from her within several hours.

She said that what she learned there rattled her so much that she had her parents take her home for the night.

“At the end of the conversation, the police officers told me that Tyler was missing and that he had possibly committed suicide,” she said. “I was overwhelmed, very sad and I felt very bad if anything had happened.”

She said that a few days later, she contacted authorities after learning that Ravi had sent Twitter messages telling followers to video chat with him when Clementi wanted the room to himself again.

She said she went to police that time on her own. “I obviously felt very bad about what had happened on (Sept.) 19th. I knew that what happened was more serious than I thought,” she said. “It would be wrong of me to not tell them after I found this out.”

She said she gave a brief statement about that, then was arrested and charged with invasion of privacy.

In her testimony on Feb. 27, Wei said she watched two brief snippets of live-streamed video from Ravi’s webcam on her computer. In both, cases, she said, she saw Clementi and another man standing near Clementi’s desk kissing. In the second case, she said, their shirts were off.

She said she and Ravi initially agreed not to tell anyone about the first time they saw the footage.

“First of all, it was shocking. It felt wrong. We didn’t expect to see that. And now that what we did, it was like we shouldn’t have seen it,” Wei said in testimony Monday. “We didn’t want people to know what had happened.”

But, she said, she and Ravi soon told others about it, and she agreed to show other students.

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Rutgers student came out just weeks before suicide

The parents of a Rutgers University student whose roommate allegedly used a webcam to spy on his intimate encounter with a man, say their son told them he was gay about three weeks before his suicide.

Joe and Jane Clementi told People magazine that they were surprised that Tyler Clementi came out in 2010, a few days before the 18-year-old moved into his Rutgers dorm room. He’d been living a lie, he told them, and had known since middle school that he was gay.

“You have dreams for your children,” Jane Clementi told People. “When someone tells you this, your dreams are kind of shattered for that moment.” She said she was still processing the revelation from the violinist, who also taught himself to ride a unicycle. But, she said, she still loved him – and had no inkling that he was depressed or suicidal.

Their interview, which appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of People magazine, is the family’s first with the media. It came as they launch a foundation in their son’s name to address acceptance of gay youth, suicide prevention and online civility. The foundation’s first activity was last month when it co-sponsored with Rutgers University an academic symposium on how young people use – and misuse – social media.

Clementi’s suicide in September 2010 sparked a national discussion on the bullying young gays can face.

His roommate, Dharun Ravi, is charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime that is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Ravi, now 19, has pleaded not guilty and rejected a plea deal that came with a recommended prison sentence of 3 to 5 years and the possibility of avoiding jail entirely.