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An emotional climax to Dharun Ravi's trial

Last updated on: May 24, 2012 04:16 IST

An emotional climax to Dharun Ravi's trial

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P Rajendran

Rediff.com's P Rajendran was at the Middlesex court in New Jersey as the parents of Dharun Ravi, convicted for webcam spying of his roommate Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide, and the latter's parents, took the stand before the judge sentenced Ravi to 30 days in prison.

A concession speech is often a very sad sight to watch. But as the fortunes swayed in the lose-lose battle that the Ravi and Clementi families were fighting, with prosecutors and lawyers playing their proxies, Steve Altman looked a particularly sad figure as he shuffled, standing behind a chair and admitting the prosecution had won the case and saying that the Clementis naturally but unfairly hated him for doing his job.

But in the end, instead of a ten-year sentence, his client Dharun Ravi got a 30-day sentence, far short of the maximum sentence he could have got but far more than his attorneys seek after he watched his roommate Tyler Clementi and his boyfriend in an intimate setting. Clementi learned of it, and soon after, on September 22, 2010, committed suicide.

In the morning, the Clementis walked confidently onto the fourth floor of the Middlesex Superior County court in New Brunswick, New Jersey, heads high, chatting with friends. They had got the conviction and now sought the only closure they could look really expect -- the incarceration of what they saw their son's persecutor.

Dharun Ravi and his family came in quietly, Dharun looking pensive, his father red-eyed. The family was quickly moved into a room at the other end of the corridor, near the elevator they came up in.

Despite the rain, the media was in early, hoping to catch the final moments of a story that brought nuance to what would usually be a sordid story about the excesses of bullying.

Ravi, while never having apologised, had been described by even the prosecution's witnesses as more insensitive to finer feelings than a tormentor. Nancy Solomon of WNYC chivvied her fellow journalists to queue up in the building instead of letting the line snake out into the rain outside.

It was depressing, and even a trained police dog mewled pitifully and tried to drag its handler back indoors every time a door opened.

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Image: Dharun Ravi, third from right, inside the courtroom
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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As they had entered the building, the Clementis walked into Judge Berman's courtroom with assurance. Their view had been vindicated and now that justice was on their side they wanted to see some strong punitive action back it.

While Tyler Clementi's mother Jane was more expressive, the men were slow to reveal their opinions, with Tyler's brother Brian, in particular, watching the proceedings in almost absolute silence.

Dharun Ravi's family came in more uncertainly and found their way to the front seats on the left, as seen by the judge. The defeat hung heavily on them.

While father Ravi Pazhani quickly and often furtively scanned the gathering, perhaps for some sign of support, mother Sabitha broke down quietly but frequently.

The wait for the judge to walk in must have taken its own toll on the defence. They had gambled on acquittal and lost -- and they felt they were there only for the judge to deliver the coup de grace.

Ravi's family, worried, weepy and wan, prepared for the blow in their own individual ways: In discussion, grief, and distracted silence.

Dharun Ravi ought to have known how the court operates -- many officials and clerks tramping in through the judge's door before first the clerks and then the judge walks in -- but stoic as he appeared he kept looking up every time the door opened. Even his attorneys seemed to feel the strain though the prosecution team, led by Julia McClure, remained calm.

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Image: Dharun Ravi's family
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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Jane Clementi also appeared to be waiting, but with a far different expression -- one that argued the end of a long wait once the judge walked in.

The room could be split roughly into two groups: The brown one that included the defendant's family and friends, and the white, represented by the Clementi family and every one else. The only black people in the room were judiciary clerk Sheila Porter and Tru-TV representative Andre Holland.

While Porter, being a judiciary employee, declined to give her opinion on the proceedings, Holland later said that while "there are favorable judgments, there are no winners" in a court case.

"The pain both mothers felt was real. It cannot be measured," he said.

With only his arched eyebrows leaking his stress, Dharun Ravi stood on the fringes, hands in his pocket, when Judge Glenn Berman called all the lawyers to the bench and held a discussion.

Ravi's lawyer Philip Nettl argued, gaining strength as he spoke, that his client may not have received a fair trial -- among other things pointing out that the jury had not been reminded Tyler Clementi had committed suicide -- and argued for a fresh one.

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Image: The packed courtroom
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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Jane Clementi did not appear to think much of Nettl's argument, looking ahead stony-faced as the lawyer tried to worm his client out of trouble.

Tyler Clementi's brother Brian and father Joe watch Nettl with wry smiles, clearly not expecting him to make much headway with the judge.

Judge Berman quietly interrupted Nettl and told him that it was at the request of the defence that he had avoided bringing it up, adding, "If I'd asked the jury not to think of a pink elephant, I'm sure they would have."

He said, "The defendant is not entitled to a perfect trial; he is entitled to fair one."

The photographers in the jury box, after the initial flurry of snapping, settled down into more controlled shots, picking and choosing the moments -- and people -- more carefully.

Particularly enthusiastic was Thomas Costello (in foreground), who, virtuously brandishing his camera muffler, reminded a sheriff of the need for them and later kept photogs who did not cover their cameras that they were too loud.

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Image: The Clementis
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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Julia McClure, first assistant prosecutor for Middlesex County, got up to respond to the points that Nettl had raised but which the judge had not addressed and pointed out a few errors in the paperwork.

The Ravi family looked ahead in resentment as the prosecutor again stressed the defendant's guilt -- and the need for swift, exemplary punishment.

Joe and Jane Clementi looked on with some hope as McClure held forth, clearly with her on the matter.

McClure found the judge agreed with her on most counts and that the corrections would be made. The judge ordered a ten-minute recess thereafter.

The Clementis -- James, Jane, Brian and Joe -- conferred with their lawyer Paul Mainardi during the break, which has clearly helped reduce the tension in the room.

Though it was a short respite for the Ravi family, too, once alone, a pall again seemed to descend on Ravi Pazhani.

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Image: Dharun's father Ravi Pazhani
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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Richard Pompelio, the lawyer for Tyler Clementi's boyfriend only named as MB and whose tryst Dharun Ravi had seen on video, read a statement from MB arguing for a stiff sentence for Dharun Ravi.

"I do not mind that Ravi has never apologised to me for what he did and said, but I do wonder if it has ever entered his mind that he caused me a great deal of pain, and yet he knows nothing about me."

"Perhaps if he is required to interact with people that are different from him he will hopefully gain some perspective on the fact there are diverse groups of people on this earth and it is easier to respect and tolerate their diversity than it is to insult it," Pompelio read from the statement.

Dharun Ravi remained quiet throughout the reading, which described him as callous and unrepentant and someone unable to understand the implications of his actions.

Joe Clementi spoke in a measured voice about Tyler, about the faith the family had consistently put in New Jersey's criminal system, how justice had been served, and the need for exemplary punishment.

He said Dharun Ravi still did not get it and pointed out that he had yet to apologise for his misdeeds.

"The emotional pain that I and my family felt when Tyler committed suicide was profound and still is. Days of tears leading to weeks of tears. Extended family visiting, neighbors visiting, some I hadn't seen in years, Tyler's friends from high school, and all the crying. Everybody cried all day long. For weeks. Seeing my wife and my other children in such a state and realising there was nothing I could do as a husband or a parent to ease their pain, was in itself painful," he said.

Jane Clementi broke down in her seat as she spoke and family members moved in to hide her from the staring cameras as she let herself go.

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Image: Dharun Ravi
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Sergeant Keith Lane, a 49-year-old sheriff, otherwise quite bluff and full of dark threats intended to ensure order, appeared thoughtful and deeply moved by Clementi's statement. As affected was law clerk Risa Chaflin.

McClure, who remained impassive through most of the trail, with only the pressure of pursed lips and the blink of her eyes to reveal her emotions, watched intently as Joe Clementi spoke about his son and the need for justice.

James Clementi, who is gay, also spoke about victimisation and bullying and the role he felt Dharun Ravi had played in his brother's death.

"He was a brilliant student, a talented and kind person who would never do anything to hurt another person. He could never have known the viper's nest he was walking into, nor could anyone in my family have imagined a situation so horrible and cruel that he would need to be protected from," he said, adding, "there is no doubt in my mind that Dharun never saw Tyler as truly a person, only an object of ridicule that he could use to show off his computer abilities and gain some new friends in the process."

"While Dharun may never truly be able to grasp the pain and fear he pushed into Tyler's heart, I will never be able to stop thinking about it."

"Even I had no idea of the despair and torment Tyler must have been feeling and I thought I knew him," Jane Clementi said in her victim impact statement.

"Tyler and I had been very connected, so much so that I felt like a piece of me died in September 2010."

Speaking of Ravi, she said, "Why was he so arrogant, so mean spirited and evil that he would humiliate and embarrass Tyler in front of Tyler's new dorm mates, the very people Tyler was trying to meet and become friends with?

"How could they all just go along with such meanness? Why didn't any one of them speak up and stop it? How did it spiral so out of control? They knew it was wrong and yet no one stopped it."

Keeping her composure with difficulty, she said, "Even now 19 months later, I feel such sadness and grief, which quickly turns to anger and rage coming up from deep within me just thinking about these events and what Tyler must have been feeling. What I want is justice."

Prosecutor Julia McClure argued for exemplary punishment in response to Dharun Ravi's actions in spying on Tyler Clementi and the need to show that not only the letter of the law, but also its spirit, has been served.

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Image: Jane Clementi
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com
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The family appeared to duck the barrage of proven accusations against Dharun Ravi.

Sabitha Ravi composed herself enough to come up and speak about her son and what he has been going through.

"These past 20 months, my son has been sitting home, holding all of the stress and pressure inside," Sabitha Ravi said. "He had not gone out anywhere to socialize or to meet friends or just grab a sandwich."

"With all this going on in his life, he tried to put his focus on completing his online courses he has signed up for and the programming he is working on."

Halfway through she broke down and had to sit beside her son, who, for the first ever perhaps, gave way to emotion himself.

Sabitha Ravi went on: "He is spending his whole day reading and learning new technologies on his own. He completely drowns himself into these. Food has not been important to him for the last 20 months. He literally eats only one meal a day as he suppresses his hunger. He has lost more than 25 pounds going through this ordeal."

Pleading for leniency, she told the judge: "Dharun's dreams are shattered and he has been living in hell for the past 20 months. It is hard for me to say (it), but my son is physically alive in front of everyone's eyes. While I am sharing his pain, I make sure he knows that I love him."

First, only the increasing pressure of his fingers into his cheeks revealed Dharun Ravi's stress as his mother begged for his freedom. Later, both he and his mother made use of the tissues that Sergeant Lane pushed over to them.

Joe and Jane Clementi looked through some papers as Sabitha Ravi made her appeal to the judge.

Her statement done, Sabitha Ravi hugged her son tight -- and he, belying his stoic image, responded. Philip Neetl looked on.

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Image: Sabitha Ravi makes her statement
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Ravi Pazhani was more tightly under control than his wife.

"In September 2010 we lost a fine young man, prematurely, and ever since our lives changed inside out in many different ways," he said in his impact statement.

"We have all come to know how talented a violinist Tyler was, how he could ride a unicycle while playing the violin, kindhearted, quiet and admirable young man, a son and a brother."

"But what we would never know is what a gentleman he would have become, all the positive contributions he would have made to the society to make it better place for next generation had he lived longer."

"We will never know. As an American, I may look different, may have a different skin colour, may speak differently than most, but believe me I am a parent first and my parental instincts are no different from any other parents out there. Rest of our lives will never be the same again."

"Rest in peace, Tyler, You will always be in our thoughts and prayers until our last breath."

He then argued that no one had cared to see his son's side of the case.

"No one cared about the more truthful side of this story because it was not sensational, doesn't help media ratings, doesn't give any political mileage and doesn't help advance a lobby group's agenda, even it meant going against the Constitution and denying Dharun the fundamental Constitutional right, (the) presumption of innocence."

Denying that the family was homophobic as portrayed, Ravi Pazhani asked how someone who was never a bully in school could overnight become a hardcore bully.

"All the good comments Tyler made clearly shows bullying has no role to play in this case. It is all the imagination of people, who want to further their agenda at any cost even if it means burning an 18 year old, my son Dharun, alive. Dharun has been the target of nonstop bullying by prosecutors, media and politicians and well-connected lobbyists," he said.

His parents' pleas fresh in his mind, Dharun Ravi appeared uncommonly discomposed as he waited for a judicial judgment.

Jane Clementi looked hopeful as Judge Berman began delivering his judgment.

The Ravi family prepared for what it expected to be a significant blow.

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Image: Ravi Pazhani makes his statement
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Judge Berman delivered a carefully worded judgment, including a great many caveats.

He said he thought Dharun Ravi both young and criminally insensitive, and noted, as had others before him, that he had not apologised for the damage he had done.

He said not two, but four families had been damaged by his behavior -- besides the Ravis and the Clementis, Berman pointed out to Dharun Ravi's friend and accomplice Molly Wei who had to drop out of school and do community service; and MB, who had entered a consensual relationship not realising that his privacy was being invaded.

He did not think Dharun Ravi was a flight risk, but, with education, could still learn from his experience.

He sentenced Dharun Ravi to 30 days at a correctional facility, community service and corrective training.

The Ravi family -- while not having got Dharun Ravi off altogether -- reacted to the blow that did not fall with the violence they had expected.

The Clementis did not appear happy that Dharun Ravi had got a mere 30 days for behaviour that they had insisted had led to their son's death.

The spotlight finally off him and on to the people who supported him, Dharun Ravi stood alone, still taking it all in.

As friends, family and well-wishers crowded around the family, Judge Berman issues some last minute instructions to the staff -- and moved quietly out of the court where he had been the cynosure of all eyes since February.

Later, after the courtroom cleared, videographer Andre Holland of Tru-TV, who was wrapping up, said, "Hope Dharun makes the best of it."


Image: Judge Berman delivers his verdict
Photographs: P Rajendran/Rediff.com

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