Friday, February 24, 2012

Opening arguments begin in Tyler Clementi trial

The NY Post reports: Jury selection was completed yesterday and opening arguments are expected today in Dharun Ravi’s hate crime trial, which could answer at least some of the questions about the circumstances of a death that sparked a national conversation about bullying on young gays and the emerging issue of cyberbullying.

The case gained widespread attention in September 2010 when Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, killed himself days after the intimate encounter. Experts following the case say that like many criminal cases, it seems more complicated than it did at first.

“One of the reasons the politicians jumped in so quickly is that there is a growing national concern over cyberbullying and harassment,” said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at New York’s Fordham University who studies online law. “This appeared on first blush to be a very crystalizing example. It became an opportunity for statements about the problem.”

But, he said, New Jersey’s invasion of privacy laws don’t closely match what Ravi is accused of doing. And, he said, the legally important idea that he acted out of bias toward gays is not a slam dunk for prosecutors given the shards of evidence that have been made public so far.

Ravi, now 19, isn’t charged in connection with Clementi’s death. He is charged with invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension and tampering with a witness and evidence. The most serious charges are two counts of bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. To convict him on those counts, prosecutors will have to persuade a jury that Ravi sought to intimidate Clementi because he was gay.

“The question really before this jury really is whether this is a college prank that went horribly wrong or really a hate crime where the victim was targeted because of his sexual orientation,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who is now a criminal defense lawyer.

During the month leading up to Clementi’s suicide, a number of other young gays who experienced bullying killed themselves. But it was the story of the 18-year-old Rutgers freshman that became a symbol of the problem, sparking the reaction of such leaders and celebrities as President Barack Obama and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Reidenberg said that the issue of gay bullying needs to be addressed but that using this case as a prime example is a problem. “It can be really harmful to the cause,” he said, “hanging so much on the Clementi case for cyberbullying and cyber harassment.”

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