Was a young student ridiculed for being gay?
A young man was dead. No-one had been charged with murder, or even manslaughter. Because Tyler Clementi had taken his own life.
But the tragedy of his death was to cast a dark shadow over a New Jersey courtroom…
Dharun Ravi was 20 and on trial for 35 charges relating to 15 separate counts.
The most serious being bias intimidation – when you bully someone because of their race, gender or sexual orientation. A hate crime.
In New Jersey, it carries a maximum of 30 years. And the jury had to decide if Dharun Ravi had bullied Tyler Clementi because he was gay.
In 2010, both young men started at Rutgers University, New Jersey. They’d never met before, but had randomly been assigned to share a room in university accommodation.
Three weeks into the term, Tyler asked Dharun if he could have the room for the evening… Tyler had a date.
Dharun agreed, went to spend the evening with a friend.
What Dharun didn’t tell Tyler was he’d set up a webcam in the room. He watched on his computer as Tyler welcomed his date, as the two men kissed…and as one thing led to another.
Two nights later, Tyler asked Dharun for the room again for another date… This time, Dharun decided to make an event of it.
He set up the webcam. Then he tweeted – asked if anyone wanted to join him watching Tyler and his date.
But Dharun had forgotten Tyler followed him on Twitter. Dharun was rumbled. The webcam was unplugged and Tyler complained to student services, requesting a new room.
Two days later, Tyler drove to the nearby George Washington Bridge and threw himself off, plunging to his death in the Hudson River 184m below.
Now, in court, the jury wasn’t being asked to consider if Dharun’s actions had led to Tyler killing himself. Dharun had never been arrested in connection with the death.
Instead, jurors had to decide if Dharun had bullied Tyler because he was gay.
For evidence, the lawyers turned to Twitter.
Before moving into the room together, the two students had been informed of each other’s names. So, they’d checked each other out online.
Dharun quickly discovered Tyler belonged to an online forum for young gay men called Just Us Boys.
He’d tweeted, F*** MY LIFE. My roommate’s gay.
When the two moved in, they pretty much left each other alone. Except Dharun tweeted that Tyler was gay but regular gay.
Then came the webcam incident.
Dharun took to Twitter again.
Roommate asked for room till midnight, he wrote. I turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.
And then, two nights later, when Tyler had his second date…
Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9.30 and 12, Dharun wrote. Yes, it’s happening again.
An invitation to anyone on Twitter to watch Tyler on his date through Dharun’s webcam.
Perhaps that was a gross invasion of privacy. But, Dharun’s lawyers argued, surely it wasn’t a hate crime?
Dharun himself admitted he was an ‘immature kid’. And like other immature kids, he sometimes used words out of context in an offensive manner.
Evidence showed he’d tweeted once about the month of January. He’d called it a gay month. Meaning it was a bad month, an unpleasant month.
It was wrong to use ‘gay’ to mean something bad. But Dharun hadn’t meant any harm by it.
Besides, when he’d been asked on Twitter what he thought about having a gay roommate, he’d replied
I don’t care.
And hadn’t Tyler done more or less the same thing to him?
When Tyler had met Dharun’s parents, he’d taken to Twitter to write they were soooo Indian first gen americanish.
Weren’t both these men using stereotypes to judge each other? And isn’t that something you grow out of as you get older, the more you see of the world?
One of the other charges Dharun was facing was invasion of privacy. Dharun’s lawyers argued he’d set up the webcam because he didn’t know anything about Tyler’s date, and was worried he might be a thief.
Except, it seemed from his tweets his intention had been to ridicule Tyler. And to ridicule him because he was gay.
Would he have spied on a roommate’s date if that roommate had been straight?
Throughout the trial, Dharun sat in silence.
Across the courtroom, Tyler’s family watched.
Dharun had never been charged with Tyler’s death… But the what-ifs must have loomed large.
What if Dharun hadn’t set up that webcam, would Tyler have committed suicide?
Before he’d jumped, Tyler had posted a message. Jumping off the GW bridge, sorry.
That day, Dharun had texted Tyler. I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it, the text said. I don’t want your first year at university to be ruined because of our misunderstanding.
It was impossible to tell if Dharun Ravi sent the text before or after Tyler’s post.
However, he hadn’t shown any remorse for his actions since. So how would his silence affect the jury’s decision?
In March 2012, Dharun Ravi was found guilty of 15 criminal acts, including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence and other charges. He was sentenced to 30 days in prison, three years’ probation, 300 hours community service and a $10,000 fine (around £8,000) which would go towards groups supporting bias crime victims.
However, in 2015, some of New Jersey’s rules about bias intimidation changed, so Ravi’s convictions were overturned. In a new trial, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of attempted invasion of privacy in return for the other charges against him being dropped.