By JOSH LEDERMAN
TRENTON, N.J. – A former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate’s sexual encounter with another man wants his case dismissed because evidence of the teenager’s state of mind before he committed suicide wasn’t presented to the grand jury that indicted him.
Lawyers for former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi argued Monday that prosecutors withheld evidence showing Ravi never bullied roommate Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge days after his same-sex encounter was furtively captured on a webcam and transmitted through the Web.
Defense attorney Steven Altman asked prosecutors to turn over evidence that they said could clear Ravi, 19, of the hate crime accusations, and will ask a New Jersey court to dismiss the charges, according to the Star-Ledger. The newspaper reported that Altman is asking the prosecution for documents from Clementi’s computer and dorm room that could shed light on his state of mind around the time of his suicide.
Altman and Philip Nettl, Ravi’s other attorney, didn’t respond to inquiries by telephone and email Monday from The Associated Press.
Ravi was indicted on 15 counts in April for events that took place in September 2010, when prosecutors say he learned Clementi, 18, and another man would be using the room. Prosecutors said he used a webcam to spy on them and invited others on Twitter to watch their sexual encounter. Clementi’s suicide soon after sparked a national discussion about bullying and gay youth that prompted celebrities, senators and President Barack Obama to speak out.
Ravi and fellow student Molly Wei, who also watched the encounter, weren’t charged with Clementi’s death, but rather with invading his privacy. Wei later agreed to testify against Ravi in exchange for being spared a trial and having her charges eventually dropped if she complies with certain conditions.
But Ravi’s most serious legal problem is a bias intimidation charge- a hate crime- that a grand jury approved after prosecutors presented evidence alleging that Ravi targeted his roommate because he was gay, and tried to intimidate him by broadcasting his encounter on the Internet. New Jersey’s hate crimes law ups the stakes for those whose crimes are deemed to be rooted in bias. Ravi could face five to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Only the prosecution gets to present evidence when grand juries weigh indicting a suspect, said Joshua Cohn, a defense attorney and former New Jersey prosecutor who isn’t involved in the Rugers case. But they’re supposed to include contradictory evidence if it meets a certain standard.
“It’s a fundamental principal of New Jersey law that anything that is ‘clearly exculpatory’ should have been included in the presentation to the grand jury,” Cohn said. “But it’s a little fuzzy over what constitutes ‘clearly exculpatory.”‘
A spokesman for the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the claims it withheld evidence but said prosecutors would respond to any motions filed during the next hearing, scheduled for Sept. 9.