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Indian-American student charged in gay roommate's suicide scandal

New York: A New Jersey judge oversaw jury selection on Tuesday in the cyber bullying trial of Indian American student Dharun Ravi accused of secretly filming gay roommate Tyler Clementi, who later committed suicide.

Clementi's tragic death has struck an anti-bullying nerve in America and become a lightening-rod for outrage.

The jury pool was narrowed down based on responses to written questionnaires and Wednesday will see the selection moving to verbal questioning of the pool. At the end of the process, 12 people and at least two alternates will sit on the jury in a trial expected to last four weeks.

Ravi, clad in a dark suit, sat quietly throughout the day-long proceeding as attorneys on both sides spent the day culling the pool of prospective jurors from 188 to 85.

Ravi is charged with bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison after he used a webcam to broadcast his roommate in a sexual encounter who later committed suicide. Reuters

Three weeks into Rutgers, Ravi and another student Molly Wei, used a webcam to secretly watch Clementi in an embrace with a man. Ravi gossiped about his roommate on Twitter: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into Molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Clementi read Ravi’s “Yay” tweet the next day. Two days later, Ravi slyly set up another voyeuristic viewing. The day after that, Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi charged with hate crime

Ravi is charged with 15 criminal counts including invasion of privacy (sex crimes), witness tampering, hindering prosecution, and bias and intimidation (hate crimes) for spying on Clementi kissing a man and showing his friends webcam shots in September 2010.

Ravi, 19, is not charged with Clementi’s death. However, he is charged with bias intimidation, basically a hate crime punishable by 10 years in prison. Ravi has pleaded not guilty and refused a plea deal which was offered in May last year, insisting that he intended no harm in what his lawyer says was not a hate crime but simply “a bad-taste prank.”

A second plea offer was made in December: no jail time, an effort to protect Ravi against deportation, and six hundred hours of community service. This deal was also rejected by Ravi and his family.

“You want to know why?” Steven Altman, Ravi’s lawyer, earlier told reporters. “Simple answer, simple principle of law, simple principle of life: he’s innocent.”

Wei cut a deal with prosecutors last year. The charges against her are being dropped as she has agreed to meet a list of conditions for three years that includes attending counseling and serving three hundred hours of community service. She also agreed to testify against Ravi, if called.

Not an open-and-shut-case

As skillfully chronicled in The New Yorker this month, a debate is forming over whether the tragedy calls for strong punishment to combat homophobia or something less than that as it appears to be a complex case. The revelations since the tragedy have show that the relationship between Ravi and Clementi was more nuanced than initially portrayed. The New Yorker story implies that Ravi is not homophobic in as much as he is casually cruel and a loudmouth jerk.

“A harsh punishment will surely gratify people who think that Ravi bullied Clementi to death. If that’s your view, then you probably think Ravi is getting what he deserved,” said Slate Magazine.

“In spite of the intense swirl of publicity around this case, we still don’t know why this shy, talented violinist (Tyler Clementi) chose to take his own life. And the trial in all likelihood won’t solve the mystery, either. Instead, it will principally be about whether Ravi, who acted like a big, fat, spying jerk of a roommate in his first few giddy weeks of college, was homophobic enough to be guilty of criminal bias and intimidation,” added Slate.

Ravi and Clementi reduced each other to wooden stereotypes. At one point, Ravi messaged a friend saying Clementi has a Yahoo email account. “I was fucking hoping for someone with a gmail but no,” Ravi writes to his friend. “Dude, I hate poor people” he tells that same friend. Ravi drove a BMW in high school; Clementi didn’t have a car.

According to media reports, Clementi also instant messaged an Asian friend saying Ravi’s parents seemed “sooo Indian first gen americanish” and joked that they “defs owna dunkin” – a Dunkin’ Donuts.

In a sign of the times, the case will pore over social media evidence and Ravi and Clementi’s unfiltered text messages.

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