Bias Crime Charges Weighed After N.J. Teen's Suicide

October 1, 2010 - 8:54 AM

Piscataway, N.J. (AP) - As prosecutors consider filing bias-crime charges against two college freshmen accused of streaming online video of a sexual encounter between a classmate who later killed himself and another man, a huge divide has emerged between those who support the suspects and those who want to see them punished.

The saga that unfolded this week at Rutgers University has become a flashpoint for debate after the revelation that 18-year-old Tyler Clementi had jumped from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22.

Leading up to the suicide, a post appeared on a website catering to gay men seeking advice on what to do after learning that a roommate secretly filmed a liaison. While it's impossible to be certain that that post and subsequent ones were made by Clementi, they mirror the same timeline as the alleged filming and reflect the anguish someone in that situation might have felt.

Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi of Plainsboro, N.J., and another student, Molly Wei of Princeton, N.J., both 18, are charged with invasion of privacy, with the most serious charges carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison.

But Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan said Thursday that more charges were possible under New Jersey's hate-crimes law.

"We will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident, and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges," he said in a statement.

The legal question has to do with the motive.

A person can be found guilty of a bias crime in New Jersey if the jury agrees that he or she committed a crime because of a belief that the victim is a member of a protected group, such as a racial minority or gay.

Ravi's lawyer has not responded to requests for comment. Messages left with an attorney believed to be representing Wei were not returned.

High school friends of the suspects, both 2010 graduates of West Windsor-Plainsboro High, say the suspects have no problem with gay people.

"He had gay friends," Derek Yan, 16, told The Associated Press. Yan said that he chatted online with Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player, about college life in recent weeks. "He said he was lucky to have a good roommate," Yan said. "He said his roommate was cool."

Numerous websites popped up in defense of the suspects, with some proclaiming their innocence or calling their alleged actions a prank. Countless other sites, however, were dedicated to bashing the suspects or calling for stiffer charges, including manslaughter.

The comments on the pages are emotional and sometimes vitriolic. Some postings call the suspects "sickos" and "cold-blooded killers" while others display homophobia and racism (both suspects are minorities), even thanking the suspects for their possible role in a gay man's death.

Luanne Peterpaul, who has worked as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer and serves as the vice chairwoman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said bias crimes can be hard to prove.

She said prosecutors should look at evidence including the Twitter messages Ravi may have used to alert friends to the alleged video. She said that there might be clues as to his intent.

Peterpaul said she believes that filming a man and a woman engaged in sex in a dorm room would not have had the same results.

"It's quite possible that maybe they would have videotaped an opposite-sex couple," she said. "But would there have been such a following?"

The saga took another twist when the website Gawker reported that someone started a discussion on a graphic gay-oriented website after realizing his roommate was "spying" on him with a webcam.

The author described his conflicted feelings after reading his roommate's tweets about the author kissing a guy in their room while he watched from afar. Should he report his roommate or request a room change? Would either help or just make things worse? The author later wrote that he told a resident assistant about the filming -- and that he unplugged his roommate's computer and searched the room for hidden cameras before another liaison.

The last known communication from Clementi was on his Facebook page. It said, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

Friends were shocked that Clementi, a talented violinist who was known as quiet but happy, would have been embroiled in scandal -- or would have killed himself.

"I would never expect this to happen to him," said John Shen, a student at the New York Institute of Technology and a high school friend of Clementi's who last saw him about a month ago. "He's such a good kid. I've never seen him angry."

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Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield. Contributing to this report were Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York; videographers Ted Shaffrey in Ridgewood and Bonny Ghosh in Plainsboro; and writers Angela Delli Santi in Trenton and Wayne Parry in Atlantic City.