Jury selection under way in NJ webcam spying case

February 20, 2012 - 3:25 PM

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. (AP) — The trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man could reveal some of the mystery that surrounds the case if the unidentified man in the video is called to testify.

The story touched off a national conversation about the impact of bullying of young gays after the roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in 2010, in the days following the alleged spying.

The suspect, Dharun Ravi, is not charged with his death; however, he is charged with bias intimidation — a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison — invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence and a witness.

Questioning of potential jurors is scheduled to begin Wednesday.

The suicide will certainly loom over the trial. When prospective jurors went to court last week to fill out questionnaires, Judge Glenn Berman told them that Clementi had killed himself.

Ravi, 19, rejected a plea bargain offer that would have let him avoid any jail time and receive the state's help if federal authorities tried to deport him to India, where he was born. Lawyer Steven Altman said the reason his client didn't accept the deal was simple: He's not guilty of any crimes.

If the other man in the video is brought to the witness stand, his testimony could become a key part of the trial. He's been identified publicly only by the initials M.B.

A legal battle in the case leading up to the trial focused on whether Ravi and his lawyers could learn the man's identity. Eventually, the judge ruled they could. If he testifies, his full name is expected to be used.

About 2,000 Middlesex County residents were called for jury duty for the case. Most said they could not serve because it would create a hardship.

More than 200 came to court Friday to fill out 17-page questionnaires that probe issues such as how they feel about gays and whether they've ever had problems with a roommate.

Lawyers and Judge Glenn Berman will meet Tuesday to determine which prospective jurors may have biases or know witnesses and should be removed from the list.

They will start asking questions of them Wednesday in hopes of finding 12 people plus alternates who can serve in the high-profile case. The process is expected to last at least a few days.

The trial itself, which is expected to delve into text messages, tweets and online chats from Clementi and Ravi, is projected to last about four weeks.

The main alleged crime happened in September 2010, just weeks after Clementi, a violinist from Ridgewood, and Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player from Plainsboro, moved into their dorm room at Rutgers.

Clementi's parents said he told them he was gay in the days before he left for Rutgers. But court filings show that Ravi already knew that from Clementi's web postings.

Authorities say Ravi used the webcam on his computer to check on Clementi when he'd asked to have the room to himself so he could have company.

Ravi posted a Twitter message about it: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Initially, another first-year Rutgers student, Molly Wei, of Princeton Junction, was also charged in the case. But she entered a plea-trial intervention program last year that allows her to avoid jail time and emerge without a criminal record if she meets a list of conditions for three years. She also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in their case against Ravi.

Two nights after the first alleged spying incident, authorities say, Ravi tried to do the same thing when Clementi asked him to stay away from the room again.

A day after that, Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge, leaving behind a terse Facebook status updated: "Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."

Clementi's death came amid a string of cases involving younger teens and children who had killed themselves after allegedly being bullied.

Celebrities and leaders such as President Barack Obama and Ellen DeGeneres spoke out about what had happened.

Since then, Clementi's family has launched a foundation in his memory, seeking to encourage online civility and acceptance of gay youth.

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