Teen Prank Gone Awry: The Case Against Dharun Ravi
I've been fortunate enough that over the past week-and-a-half all of my trials/hearings/court appearances have been at the Middlesex County Courthouse, which is not only one block from my New Brunswick, New Jersey office, but also happens to be the venue for the criminal trial of Dharun Ravi, which started on February 20th and is expected to last a month. Dharun is the Rutgers University freshman who used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate having an intimate encounter with another man in September 2010. The story caught national headlines because the roommate, eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge the following day. (For more backstory Ian Parker wrote a fantastic article in The New Yorker last month.)
Had Clementi not committed suicide but instead filed a criminal complaint against Ravi…what punishment would the state seek? Allowing public outrage/moral panic to dictate the policy behind criminal law is wrong.
After spending several days hearing snippets of the prosecution's case in State v. Ravi, I now have quite a bit more information about the case than I did when I wrote this post last April. Because I don't believe that the story is being accurately portrayed by mainstream media, I wanted to share some of the key points I've picked up on from listening to the testimony in the courtroom:
- First of all, let me set the record straight—Dharun is not a homophobe. He's an extroverted and tech-savvy teenager, who could've either been the class clown or the class president when he attended West-Windsor Plainsboro High School North, which is in the somewhat affluent New Jersey suburb. Actually, he was co-captain of the school's Ultimate Frisbee team (I had to look this up, because I had no idea what it was).
- Regardless of how tragic, Clementi's death was the result of a teen prank gone awry. Enough said.
- The prosecution is using this case as a political statement, and this is also another example of prosecutors over-charging crimes. Although Dharun isn't charged with causing Clementi's death, by indicting him for hate crimes (N.J.S.A. § 2C:16-1) Dharun faces more prison time than if he'd committed manslaughter. The quote above is that of my friend and colleague Professor Doug Berman (@SLandP), who wrote those words way back in October 2010—six months before prosecutors upped the ante in the case against Dharun. (As far as I know, there's no relation between Doug and the presiding judge here, the Honorable Glenn Berman.)
- Dharun has an amazing legal defense team. I personally witnessed attorney Steven Altman methodically dismantle the credibility of Lokesh Ojha—a key prosecution witness—Dharun's former friend, who helped him setup the webcam.
- The prosecution would have a much weaker case if Dharun hadn't voluntarily spoken to police without his attorney present. This seems to be a recurring theme—why? Presumably, Dharun agreed to talk because he believed he'd committed no crime.
The problem with giving a statement without your attorney present is that you don't know the law. You may say things that, while seemingly innocuous at the time, are later used against you, after prosecutors have had time to pour over your statement, hoping to find some scintilla of evidence they can use to get an indictment. Don't speak! As a friend of mine says all the time: Even a fish wouldn't get caught if he didn't open his mouth.
Almost every day a potential client calls me about a legal problem that started (or got much worse) because they didn't want to spend the money to hire an attorney. In most cases it ends up costing them a lot more to hire an attorney to clean up the mess that they created. What most people don't realize that they could actually save money if they hired or consulted with an attorney prior to making a potentially life-altering or financially significant decision.
Over the next couple weeks I will continue to watch the trial, but I'll probably wait until the end before posting on the topic again. In the meantime I'll try to share updates (and maybe pics) from the trial on Twitter (@njAtty). You also might want to follow Above the Law's Elie Mystal (@ElieNYC). I stumbled upon a number of Mystal's ABL blog posts that seem consistent with with my thoughts after watching parts of the trial (not mention incredibly witty/humerous): "Let's hope nobody you make fun of ever decides to kill themselves. Otherwise you might end up like Ravi."