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N.J. Appellate Division Reverses Convictions of Dharun Ravi

Posted on: September 12th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The New Jersey Appellate Division, an intermediate appeals court, threw out a state court jury’s conviction of Dharun Ravi on fifteen different criminal counts, finding that trial evidence about how Ravi’s actions in September 2010 adversely affected his college dormitory roommate, Tyler Clementi, had tainted all the verdicts in the case because it may have caused the jury to convict Ravi based on the victim’s belief rather than the defendant’s intent. Five of the convictions were tossed out permanently, but the remaining ten were sent back to the Middlesex County Superior Court, allowing prosecutors to retry Ravi on those counts.  State of New Jersey v. Ravi, 2016 Westlaw 4710195 (N.J. App. Div., Sept. 9, 2016).

Ravi and Clementi were assigned as dormitory roommates as incoming freshmen at Rutgers University. Over the summer of 2010, Ravi used internet resources to learn about Clementi, and concluded that Clementi might be gay, but did not raise the subject with Clementi when they arrived at school.  Ravi’s suspicions were reinforced on Sunday, September 19, when Clementi asked Ravi if Clementi could “have the room” for the evening because he was expecting a guest.

When Ravi saw that the guest was an “older man,” he arranged the webcam on his desk to focus on Clementi’s bed, and left his computer on so the video chat function could be activated remotely. Ravi went across the hall to the room of a woman who had been his high school classmate, Molly Wei.  Through her computer he was able to access his webcam and together they briefly viewed Clementi and his guest kissing. Ravi spread word to his friends through twitter that they could access his computer and view the scene as well. Later that night, Wei turned on the video chat function again with some guests in her room and briefly watched Clementi and his guest “making out.”

Two days later Clementi asked to have the room again. There was conflicting testimony about what happened that evening, but it seems that although Ravi had tweeted to people to tune in to his video chat during that time, and had tried to set things up again, those attempting to view what was happening in the room were unable to do so.

The guest, identified by the court only by his initials to preserve his confidentiality, testified that he and Clementi had sex on both occasions, that he had observed the webcam focused on the bed during the first of these meetings but had not said anything to Clementi about it, and the second time he noticed the webcam was pointed away from the bed. He testified that he first learned about Clementi’s suicide when he read about it in the newspapers.

Clementi had begun monitoring Ravi’s twitter feeds, learned about what was going on, and was apparently embarrassed and mortified, going to a Resident Assistant and asking about an immediate room change. He submitted an electronic request and administrators instituted an investigation.

When Ravi was informed about the investigation, he deleted some incriminating tweets from his twitter account, composed a new backdated tweet telling his followers not to attempt to video chat with him and telling them to ignore his last tweet, and sent Clementi an apologetic text message, disclaiming any ill intent. In this message, he stated that on the second night he had deliberately repositioned the webcam so that even though he had tweeted to his friends to tune in, they would not see anything.  Ravi also told Clementi that he knew Clementi was gay “and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship,” Ravi continued.  “I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic.  I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt.  You have the right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”

Shortly after Ravi transmitted the text message, Clementi wrote on his Facebook page, “I’m going to jump off the GW Bridge. Sorry.” He committed suicide by jumping off the bridge later that night.  There is no evidence whether Clementi ever saw Ravi’s text message.

As soon as Clementi’s death was discovered, Rutgers ramped up the investigation. Ravi tried to reach out to his friend from across the hall, who had been brought in by the police for questioning.  His subsequent phone and text interactions with her became the subject of several of the criminal charges that were filed against him, relating to witness tampering and hindering apprehension of prosecution. He waived his Miranda rights and gave a statement to the investigators which cleaned up his actions by omitting “homophobic statements he candidly included” in the tweets and texts he had sent to his followers and friends about Clementi’s use of the dorm room.  “Without reciting at length the forty-four page interrogation document,” wrote the court, “we can safely summarize its content as a poorly executed attempt by defendant to sanitize his motives for using his knowledge of computers to surreptitiously observe T.C. and M.B. engaged in sexual relations.”

The main charges, however, were brought under New Jersey’s Bias Intimidation statute and invasion of privacy statute. At the time, the Bias Intimidation statute provided that a person was guilty of the crime of “bias intimidation” if “he commits, attempt to commit, conspires with another to commit, or threatens the immediate commission” of a variety of offenses listed in the statute either (1) purposely or (2) knowingly harassing the victim because of a characteristic (such as sexual orientation) listed in the statute, or if the victim (3) either “reasonably believed that the harassment was committed with a purpose to intimidate him” or that “he was selected to be the target” because of the characteristic.

At trial, the prosecution focused on the third of these categories, which is where they had the weightiest evidence. A major focus of the case was to persuade the jury that Clementi was a shy, sensitive person, who had clearly communicated to the Resident Assistant how upset he was by this “spying” on his private activities, which he amplified in the written complaint the RA encouraged him to write and submit with his room change application.  The evidence was overwhelming that this third branch of the bias intimidation crime had been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

On the other hand, the evidence that Ravi intended to harm or upset Clementi was less overwhelming, if one judges by the evidence summarized by Judge Jose Fuentes in the appellate decision. From the excerpts in the opinion, it appears that Ravi was an immature, insensitive person who lacked empathy for his roommate and was curious to know what was going on in his dorm room when he “gave the room” to Clementi for the night.  In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how Ravi could believe that Clementi would not learn about his spying, since he was tweeting about it, or that Clementi, or anybody for that matter, would not be upset about their private activities being publicized and “netcast” in that way.

Thus, it is possible that the prosecution could have secured convictions on the bias intimidation counts without introducing evidence about the impact on Clementi and just focusing on what Ravi had said, tweeted and done. But in light of the opportunity provided by the third part of the statute and the evidence available to them, they presented all of it to the jury and won convictions on all counts.

During jury selection the judge “informed all prospective jurors during voir dire that [Clementi] committed suicide and that [Ravi] was not charged with either causing or contributing to his death.” His death was also mentioned several times during the trial, but was not mentioned during the judge’s charge to the jury or the prosecution’s closing argument.  It was made clear to the jury that Ravi was being tried solely for his own actions.

After being convicted on all counts, Ravi received what many commentators, and the prosecutors, believed to be an extraordinarily light sentence: three years of probation, conditioned on serving thirty days at the Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center, completing 300 hours of community service, attend counseling, and pay an “assessment” of $10,000, which would be given to a state-license or state-chartered community-based organization dedicated to providing assistance to victims of bias crimes. Ravi appealed his conviction, but was required to fulfill this sentence while the case was pending on appeal.  The prosecutors appealed the sentence, arguing that in light of the crimes, Ravi should have received substantially more time incarcerated.

Ravi was convicted in 2012. In 2015, in the case of State v. Pomianek, 110 A.3d 841, the New Jersey Supreme Court declared that the third part of the Bias Intimidation Statute was unconstitutional because it allowed a defendant to be convicted without any proof that he intentionally or knowingly engaged in conduct that violated the statute.  As written, the statute allowed a conviction based solely on the belief of the victim that he was the target of such harassment.  The court found that this violated basic constitutional rights.  “In focusing on the victim’s perception and not the defendant’s intent, the statute does not give a defendant sufficient guidance or notice on how to conform to the law, write Justice Barry T. Albin for the Supreme Court.  “That is so because a defendant may be convicted of a bias crime even though a jury concluded that the defendant had no intent to commit such a crime.”

The offending section had been added to the state’s bias intimidation law as part of a revision in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the prior law because it allowed the trial judge to impose a sentence greater than the one authorized by the jury verdict based on the judge’s view of the evidence. The Supreme Court determined that this violated the defendant’s right to trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment.

While striking down the objectionable part, the N.J. Supreme Court emphasized that the other two parts “still stand.” Wrote Justice Albin: “A defendant is prohibited from acting with the purpose to commit bias intimidation or with knowledge that his conduct constitutes bias intimidation.  With the striking of subsection (a)(3), New Jersey’s bias intimidation law now conforms to its original form, the statute’s explanatory statement contained in the legislative history, the laws of the rest of the nation, and the United States Constitution.”

Given the way the case was litigated, it is not surprising that the Appellate Division found that the verdict on all four bias intimidation counts had to be thrown out. What was surprising, however, was that the convictions on all the other counts fell as well.   However, the Judge Fuentes explained that “the evidence the State presented to prove the bias intimidation charges [under the stricken provision] permeated the entire case against defendant, rendering any attempt to salvage the convictions under the remaining charges futile.  The State used evidence revealing the victim’s reserved demeanor and expressions of shame and humiliation as a counterweight to defendant’s cavalier indifference and unabashed insensitivity to his roommate’s right to privacy and dignity.  The prosecutor aggressively pressed this point to the jury in her eloquent closing argument.”

“It is unreasonable to expect a rational juror to remain unaffected by this evidence,” Fuentes asserted. Although other evidence certainly supported the invasion of privacy counts, the charges of tampering with evidence (Ravi’s deletion of potentially intimidating tweets) and his attempt to affect what witnesses might say, the Appellate Division panel of three judges was convinced that the evidence about the effect on Clementi and his subsequent suicide, which should not have been presented to the jury, “constituted an error ‘of such a nature to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result.’”

On the other hand, the court concluded that the state’s evidence on one of the hindering prosecution charges was so deficient that the charge should be permanently dropped from the case.

Judge Fuentes concluded the opinion with editorial comments condemning Ravi’s conduct and lamenting the misuse to which the internet can be put. “The sense of loss associated with a young man taking his own life defies our meager powers of reason and tests our resolve to seek consolation,” he wrote.  “From a societal perspective, this case has exposed some of the latent dangers concealed by the seemingly magical powers of the Internet.  The implications associated with the misuse of our technological advancements lies beyond this court’s competency to address.”

Ravi was not charged with liability in Clementi’s death, but the court was not willing to conclude without alluding to that responsibility. “The social environment that transformed a private act of sexual intimacy into a grotesque voyeuristic spectacle must be unequivocally condemned in the strongest possible way,” wrote Fuentes. “The fact that this occurred in a university dormitory, housing first-year college students, only exacerbates our collective sense of disbelief and disorientation.  All of the young men and women who had any association with this tragedy must pause to reflect and assess whether this experience has cast an indelible moral shadow on their character.”  Clearly, the court believed it had done so.

The bottom line is that the verdicts on the bias intimidation counts were reversed with prejudice, so Ravi cannot be retried on those counts, and one hindering prosecution count was permanently thrown out of the case. That leaves ten counts of actual or attempted invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, witness tampering and evidence tampering. It is now up to the Middlesex County prosecutors whether to attempt to retry Ravi on these counts.  They were expected to announce a decision whether to go forward within a week after the Appellate Division’s opinion as released.

Ravi reported to the Middlesex County Correction Center for his 30-day sentence, and earned early release after 20 days for good behavior. Although press accounts were not specific about this, presumably he has fulfilled that other terms of the sentence imposed by Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman.  According to a report in the New York Daily News earlier this year about the argument before the court, Ravi’s attorney confirmed that he had not returned to Rutgers but was employed and had adjusted to his circumstances.  Tyler Clementi’s family responded to the incident by starting a foundation to support efforts to combat bullying and harassment of gay kids.