India-born student Dharun Ravi, who had served a 20-day prison term for spying on his gay roommate who later committed suicide, won a major legal reprieve after a New Jersey appeals court threw out his conviction and ordered a new trial.
In a 61-page ruling issued on Friday, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Newark said the jury had found Ravi guilty of bias intimidation under a law that was later deemed “constitutionally defunct.”
Ravi, a former Rutgers University student, was convicted in March 2012 on 15 counts of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, hindering prosecution and tampering with evidence for spying on the sexual encounter of his roommate Tyler Clementi, 18 with another man through a webcam in September 2010.”
Days later, Clementi had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington bridge near here.
Ravi was not charged with causing or contributing to Clementi’s death.
Ravi, now 24, was sentenced to a month in Middlesex County jail and was released in June 2016 after completing 20 days in prison and getting five days credit for good behaviour.
Ravi, who had faced up to 10 years in prison, had also been sentenced to three years’ of supervised release, ordered to do 300 hours of community service and pay a fine of about 11,000 dollars.
Ravi’s attorney Steve Altman told the Wall Street Journal he was pleased with court’s decision.
“We genuinely felt that the basis of the conviction and the basis of the presentation of the state’s case was wrong,” Altman said.
“Dharun Ravi, whatever he did or didn’t do, had no homophobic motive involved.”
The case had garnered international attention and Clementi’s suicide had sparked an outrage in the country, giving rise to a debate on cyberbullying and treatment of young gays and lesbians.
In April 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled that the state’s bias-intimidation law was unconstitutional, giving hope to Ravi and his lawyers that his conviction would be reversed and he will be accorded a new trial.
According to the earlier state statute on bias intimidation, defendants can be convicted of bias intimidation if their victims “reasonably believed” they were harassed or intimidated because of their race, color, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.
However, the state Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that the 2001 statute was “unconstitutionally vague,” striking down the third section of the statute that focused on the victim’s state of mind.
The ruling had said it is the defendant’s intent and state of mind that is important, not the victim’s.
In the new ruling, the Appellate judges said “it is clear that the evidence the (prosecution) presented to prove the bias intimidation charges permeated the entire case against defendant, rendering any attempt to salvage the convictions under the remaining charges futile.
“Finally, we conclude that the evidence the State presented to prove the charges (on bias intimidation) tainted the jury’s verdict on the remaining charges, depriving defendant of his constitutional right to a fair trial,” they said.
The prosecution “used evidence revealing the victim’s reserved demeanor and expressions of shame and humiliation as a counterweight to defendant’s cavalier indifference and unabashed insensitivity to his roommate’s right to privacy and dignity,” the panel of judges said adding that it was “unreasonable” to expect a rational juror to remain unaffected by this evidence.
While ordering a new trial for Ravi on 10 other counts that included invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence, the judges said their verdict does not in any way condone his acts.
They said “the social environment that transformed a private act of sexual intimacy into a grotesque voyeuristic spectacle must be unequivocally condemned in the strongest possible way.”
“The fact that this occurred in a university dormitory, housing first-year college students, only exacerbates our collective sense of disbelief and disorientation.”
They said the sense of loss associated with a young man taking his own life “defies our meager powers of reason and tests our resolve to seek consolation.”
In a written statement, Clementi’s parents, Joe and Jane Clementi, said the decision “shows us how much more work there is to be done, and will push us forward with stronger determination to create a kinder, more empathetic society where every person is valued and respected.”
“We know that Tyler’s private moments were stolen from him and used to humiliate him. His life was forever affected and the lives of those who knew and loved him have been forever changed.”