A former Rutgers University student whose roommate committed suicide after his sexual encounter with another man was streamed on the Internet was indicted Wednesday on 15 counts, including intimidation based on sexual orientation, a hate crime.
The charges against Dharun Ravi also included invasion of privacy and witness tampering. His roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide last September, one day after Mr. Ravi and a friend allegedly invited others to view an intimate encounter online.
Mr. Clementi’s parents released a statement praising the indictment, saying it “spells out cold and calculated acts against our son Tyler by his former college roommate.”
The charges, handed down by a Middlesex County, N.J. grand jury, also include tampering with evidence. Prosecutors say Ravi deleted an incriminating tweet and then – aware of an impending investigation – tweeted something intended to mislead investigators.
The indictment does not specify what the original offending tweet said. However, it was widely reported last fall that messages about Clementi’s sexual orientation appeared on a Twitter account attributed to Ravi.
“Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” read a Sept. 19, 2010, tweet. “I went into Molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
Then, on Sept. 21, a tweet invited followers to watch a webcast of Clementi alone with a man:
“Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
That second attempted webcast was not viewed by anyone, including Ravi, but Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge in New York the next day, using his phone to post a short message on Facebook just before: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Ravi’s alleged Twitter account was deleted shortly after.
Clementi’s death was one in a string of teenage suicides attributed to bullying, which inspired the antibullying campaign, the “It Gets Better Project.” Officials including President Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton recorded videos for it, as did celebrities Anne Hathaway and Justin Bieber.
Congress is considering the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require all universities receiving federal funds to have a policy banning harassment based on race, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity.
Despite public outcry, cyberbullying remains new territory when it comes to criminal prosecutions, and cases have gone both ways. A 13-year-old Missouri girl, Megan Meier, took her life in 2006 after being bullied over Myspace.com. A woman who had participated in the bullying with her teenage daughter and her daughter’s friends was acquitted in 2009 of “accessing computers without authorization.”
“Although Facebook, Twitter and text message evidence is part of nearly every case, the law has not caught up with this technology,” Derek S. Witte, assistant law professor at the Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Michigan, writes in an email.
Last month, William Francis Melchert-Dinkel, a former nurse, was convicted in Minnesota of persuading people he’d met online to commit suicide as he watched via a web cam.
Molly Wei, a former Rutgers student and friend of Ravi’s who allegedly watched the first webcast with him from her dorm room, has not yet been indicted by a grand jury, though prosecutors have charged her with two counts of invasion of privacy. Both Ms. Wei and Ravi left Rutgers voluntarily.
In the wake of the suicide, Rutgers has announced policy changes that school officials say will help prevent future tragedy. Last month, the university said it would provide some gender-neutral housing, allowing men and women to share rooms. Officials said this would provide a more friendly environment for gay and transgendered students, though heterosexual students would be eligible to apply for the program as well.
Clementi’s parents, who have described their son as a gifted musician, said in a statement they were eager “for justice in this case and to reinforce the standards of acceptable conduct in our society.”
If convicted, Ravi could face 5 to 10 years in prison.