Electronic messages complicate case
Editorial | Text messages, email correspondence used in Clementi case must be handled carefully
When Tyler Clementi found out that his former roommate, Dharun Ravi, had been spying on him via a webcam he had set up in their room, the former University student quickly filed a request with University Housing for a room change.
Although the case —which charges Ravi with invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest — is incomplete, it has brought national focus to issues affecting college-age students across the nation. From renewed perspectives on both suicide awareness and privacy invasion to changes in anti-bullying policies at both the University and state level, its implications have forced us to question things that have been previously taken for granted.
The most powerful — and potentially most controversial — implication that may be taken from the case involves the use of evidence derived from text messages, email and social media outlets like Twitter in court proceedings. That is, this particular case has forced us to reexamine the extent to which the role of modern technology can play — or, more importantly, should play — in legal cases like Ravi’s.
The case against Ravi has largely hinged on correspondences like the one mentioned above — carried out over text messages and emails between witnesses in the trial, the defendant or Clementi himself. The impact of testimonies from witnesses who have had personal interchanges with either Ravi or Clementi have arguably paled next to evidence that has been taken from technologically-mediated correspondences. In effect, prosecutors — as well as Ravi’s lawyer — have relied largely on these messages, sent from Ravi’s cellphone to witnesses and from Clementi’s cell phone to M.B., the guest with which he had intimate meetings on a number of occasions, to recreate the events surrounding Clementi’s death.
Yet evidence of this sort, which has only truly materialized in recent years with the use of text messages, email and social media outlets becoming a major means of communication between individuals, is relatively new to court settings. In what way, then, should evidence like this be handled?
This notion has already been exemplified by the Clementi case. Text messages and emails, tossed back and forth by young adults who probably gave little thought to the full import they could potentially hold in a court setting, are now being used as primary evidence in trial. In some cases, the way in which these correspondences have been handled by either party’s attorneys — such as scrutinizing the intended meanings behind otherwise harmless text lingo like “OMG” and “LOL” — can be viewed quite comically. In others, however, this handling seems inconsistent.
According to Judge Glenn Berman, the portion of the email in which Clementi requested a room change because his “roommate used a webcam to spy on me” was not allowed into evidence because, without Clementi’s own testimony, it could be deemed hearsay — the legal term for testimony in court where the witnessed may not have direct knowledge of the fact that is stated. It seems capricious, however, why certain excerpts from that same email were allowed as evidence under the very same circumstances. It’s even more puzzling why Ravi’s lawyer, Steven Altman, was allowed to reveal text messages sent between Clementi and his guest, M.B. Following the same line of logic, these messages too lack the testimony of Clementi himself, and thus are on a similar level as the email.
The way in which such evidence has been handled in this case highlights the changing nature of communication between individuals, as well as the extent to which this means of communication can be used in a legal setting. Young people, who have grown up using text messages, emails and social media to connect with others just as they have any other form of communication — but who have never been forced to reflect on the permanency electronic correspondence can have — are now learning that this kind of communication may prove to be a possible liability.
It’s clear that the use of electronic media as evidence holds great significance in Ravi’s trial and may set the tone for similar cases in the future. Perhaps this case will serve as a warning for the online generation and urge against thoughtless virtual communication.