Saturday, December 10, 2011
NEW BRUNSWICK — Dharun Ravi wants his day in court.
The 19-year-old former Rutgers University student refused today to plead guilty to any of 15 charges accusing him of bias intimidation and using a webcam to remotely spy on his former roommate, Tyler Clementi, in their dorm room last year. Clementi, who later committed suicide, was in an intimate embrace with another man at the time the camera was on, according to authorities.
By opting for a trial, Ravi risks prison time and deportation if he’s convicted. The plea deal had called for probation and included the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office’s offer to help Ravi if immigration authorities moved to deport him.
"Why did he reject the plea?" Ravi’s attor
ney, Steven Altman, was asked after the hearing. "He’s innocent. He’s not guilty. That’s why he rejected the plea."
Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman explained in detail to Ravi, of Plainsboro, what he would face under the plea offer and what he could face if convicted by a jury, particularly if the panel finds him guilty of one or both of the bias-intimidation charges, which carry presumptive state prison sentences.
"If you are convicted of one of the bias charges, the law expects me to impose a prison term," Berman told Ravi, who was dressed in a dark suit and nodded that he understood.
Ravi could also face deportation if he is convicted because he was born in India. Altman said Ravi has a green card and "is here legally," but "deportation could be an issue."
The plea bargain from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office included an offer to cooperate and assist him in avoiding any possible immigration or deportation consequences as a result of his pleading guilty. Immigration authorities treat guilty pleas the same as convictions.
Altman told the judge he has been consulting with immigration lawyers so he would understand how to help his client.
The plea offer from the prosecutor’s office would have resulted in a probationary sentence for Ravi if the judge went along with the state’s recommendation to waive the prison sentence bias-intimidation convictions normally carry.
The state also wanted Ravi to perform 600 hours of community service and receive counseling associated with cyberbullying and alternative lifestyles.
For the first time since the case began, about 20 members of the Indian community in Middlesex and Mercer counties attended a hearing.
"We are here to support the Ravi family," said friend Anil Kappa.
The trial is set to begin Feb. 21, 2012, and last more than three weeks, according to the judge.
Authorities charge that Ravi used a webcam in the dorm room he shared with Clementi to watch Clementi and his visitor hugging and kissing in September 2010.
Ravi viewed Clementi from another student’s dorm room. That student, Molly Wei, was also charged with invasion of privacy, but she was placed in a probationary program known as pretrial intervention. All charges will be dropped if she successfully completes the program.
Ravi and Wei both withdrew from Rutgers after they were charged following Clementi’s death.
Authorities charge that after viewing Clementi, Ravi used his Twitter account to tell friends he saw the freshman "making out with a dude."
Ravi also is accused of trying and failing to set up the webcam a second time so others could watch Clementi and the man in an intimate encounter. Clementi, who had learned of Ravi’s actions several days earlier by reading Ravi’s Twitter messages, had pulled the plug on Ravi’s computer, according to court documents.
Clementi committed suicide on Sept. 22, 2010. His death helped start a nationwide dialogue about cyberbullying and gay teen suicide.
Clementi’s parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi, were in the courtroom today, but they did not make a statement. They have started a foundation in their son’s honor to help fight cyberbullying.