Witness testimonies begin in Dharun Ravi trial
More than 60 people packed the courtroom of the Middlesex County Courthouse Friday as opening arguments were presented in the trial of Dharun Ravi, which is scheduled to continue for the next three to four weeks.
Ravi, 19, dressed in a black suit, light blue shirt and blue plaid tie, rocked back and forth in his swivel chair on the left side of the room as the court came to session.
Ravi’s family piled into a row behind a bench full of press photographers. The Clementis — parents Joseph and Jane, and their son Brian — sat on the opposite side of the room, on the same side as the jury box.
The jury initially consisted of 16 members, but shrunk to 15 just before opening statements, as one of the jurors was excused for amending an answer on the questionnaire all potential jurors filled out.
First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure started with a statement on behalf of Tyler Clementi. She described the first few online interactions between Clementi and Ravi prior to living together, Ravi’s conversations with his friends regarding Clementi, his online commentary on Clementi’s sexuality and the events leading up to Clementi’s death.
In two separate incidents during September 2010, Ravi used a webcam that automatically accepted phone calls to spy on his roommate and another male, known as M.B., in Room 30 of Davidson Hall on Busch campus, McClure said.
After hearing his encounter was streamed live on the Internet, Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, she said.
Ravi is charged with invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest with up to 10 years in prison.
McClure said the webcam incident — an invasion of privacy — and Ravi’s actions were not a prank, but rather planned with malicious intent.
“You can never take away another person’s dignity. It means everything to them and nothing to you,” she said. “This isn’t about Dharun Ravi having to like Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation or the nature of his private sexual activity. It’s about having the decency to respect it and respect Tyler’s privacy.”
Ravi’s attorney Steve Altman said his client’s behavior was not criminal. Rather, Altman said Ravi was without criminal intent, because he was just an 18-year-old boy straight out of high school at the time.
“He was a boy, [what] you need to do is understand the dynamics of what occurred, close your eyes and look back as to how it existed,” Altman said.
Altman said Ravi never harassed his roommate or spoke negatively of him, and the webcam stream was not recorded or distributed.
Student witnesses said Ravi was not homophobic, but expressed some concern about living with a gay man.
Austin Chung, a Stevens Institute of Technology sophomore, took the stand as the first witness.
He, Ravi and their mutual friend Molly Wei attended high school together at West Windsor-Plainsboro North High School. Ravi and Chung were on the Ultimate Frisbee team and ate lunch together sometimes.
Wei was in her room — across the hall from Ravi and Clementi’s — along with Ravi and other students, when they viewed Clementi with his male visitor via webcam.
Chung and high school friend Jason Tam visited Ravi at the University one weekend in September. Wei, Chung’s then-girlfriend, had continuous interaction with the group through AOL Instant Messenger and cellphone.
Chung said he briefly met Clementi during that visit, but did not otherwise interact with him.
Chung said Ravi told him Tyler was a nice guy and did not think Ravi had a problem with Clementi’s sexual orientation.
Ravi and Wei messaged Chung via AIM on Sept. 19, 2010 at 9:20 p.m. to tell Chung they just saw Clementi “making out with some dude,” to which Chung responded “… Ew. Wtf [What the f—-?].”
Wei text messaged Chung on Sept. 21, 2010, saying police in an unmarked car was picking her up. Otherwise, Chung did not receive much more information from either Wei or Ravi.
Cassandra Cicco, Wei’s first-year roommate, was the next to take the stand. Cicco answered each question with little hesitation.
Wei and Cicco, a Rutgers Business School sophomore, lived across the hall from Ravi and Clementi in Room 29. Cicco said that she could not see much past the doorframe into Ravi and Clementi’s room.
Cicco and five others were in her room during the second streaming incident. Cicco said she saw one male with his shirt off leaning against another male “making out.” She said the viewing lasted no more than a few seconds.
“Someone pressed ‘end’ on the feed and it ended abruptly, and we’re like, ‘That happened,’” she said.
Cicco described M.B. as a thick man shorter than 6 feet with facial hair. Cicco figured the other male was Clementi. Ravi told her this incident proved Clementi was gay.
Despite the incident, Cicco said Ravi was not uncomfortable with gay people.
“He said he didn’t have any problem with homosexuals, and in fact, he had a really good friend who was homosexual,” Cicco said. Ravi’s gay friend was not present at the case.
Alvin Artha, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, lived down the hall in Room 26. Artha said he had difficulty remembering the details of the incidents.
Artha called the night scandalous because M.B. was an older man. He said he remembers Ravi saying he was uncomfortable sleeping in his room and told Artha he would stay with a friend on Livingston campus.
Scott Xu, one of Ravi’s teammates on the West Windsor-Plainsboro North and University Ultimate Frisbee teams, spoke last.
Xu, a School of Engineering sophomore, said Ravi spoke about streaming Clementi’s encounter the same night as the team practiced.
Xu, who lived at Allen Hall on Busch campus, said he did not view the stream.
The trial is set to resume Monday morning with a cross-examination of Xu and statements from Wei, Ravi’s residence hall assistant and University Housing representatives.