Spying on Tyler Clementi's gay sexual encounter was an innocent mistake by Rutgers freshman Dharun Ravi, sparked by curiosity, not maliciousness, Ravi's attorney argued today in the closing summations of the Rutgers trial.
Ravi, 20, is on trial for allegedly invading Clementi's privacy after he activated a webcam and saw Clementi having a gay sexual encounter in their shared Rutgers dorm room on Sept. 19, 2010. Ravi is accused of telling others about the webcam spying, and encouraging them to also watch during a subsequent Clementi date on Sept. 21.
In addition, Ravi is charged with bias intimidation, witness tampering and hindering arrest.
"Why we're here is because on Sept. 19, and Sept. 21, 2010, an 18-year-old boy, a kid, a college freshman, had an experience, had an encounter that he wasn't ready for," Ravi's lawyer Steven Altman told the jury.
He told the jury they would have to decide whether Ravi's reaction was because "he was hateful and he was biased, and ugly and anti-gay and he hated his roommate," or whether he was "stupid, he's ignorant, maybe immature and a typical 18-year-old kid. Or is his reaction criminal."
The defense's summation was interrupted, however, when Altman got sick while addressing the jury. He asked the judge for a few minutes, but did not immediately return. The court was cleared and is set to resume at 1 p.m.
Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman, killed himself just days after the spying incident by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His death and the charges against Ravi sparked public outrage over cyber-bullying and gay-bullying among students.
Ravi, however, is not charged in connection with Clementi's death. Clementi left behind a note, but its contents have never been made public.
Altman said his client made an immature mistake when he activated the webcam on Sept. 19 while Clementi had over an older male guest in their dorm room. When Ravi realized he was seeing a date, he turned the camera off. Altman claims Ravi was peeking to check on his belongings because he felt that Clementi's date, identified only by his initials M.B., was older and scruffy looking.
"If his goal was to see anything sexual, you know you would have been hearing testimony in the last three weeks from somebody (about it)," Altman told the jury. "But the webcam was on a very short time, two to five seconds, and that tells you why they went on on Sept. 19. It was curiosity, to see what's going on, to find out what was that guy doing there."
In a New Jersey courtroom packed with two dozen members of Clementi's family and friends, and a handful of Ravi's family members, Altman argued that there was no evidence that Ravi was homophobic or anti-gay. During the testimony of 22 witnesses throughout the trial, no one had said that Ravi openly disparaged his roommate or felt hatred toward him, Altman said.
When he activated the webcam in his room and saw Clementi kissing a man, he reacted with immature surprise, Altman argued.
Following Altman's summation, the jury will hear the state's closing argument. The state has contended during the trial that Ravi complained to friends in emails that he was upset to find out that his college roommate was gay, and that he recruited the help of a second student to aim his webcam at Clementi's bed for the Sept. 21 date, and invited friends to watch the encounter.
The state has also argued that Ravi tried to cover up his incriminating digital messages and tampered with a witness.
On Wednesday, Judge Glenn Berman is scheduled to give the jury instructions and let them begin deliberations. That schedule is now uncertain because of Altman's illness.
Ravi could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.