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Dharun Ravi trial: Damning testimony presented in court

By Arthur J Pais
March 06, 2012 21:12 IST
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Witness Michelle Huang told the court that Ravi not only spied on Clementi but also sent the message 'Keep the gays away'. Arthur J Pais reports.

After weeklong testimonies for the witness and several students from Rutgers University saying under oath how Dharun Ravi used his web camera to spy on his roommate Tyler Clementi, the prosecution presented a witness on Monday who gave the most damning testimony in the sensational case that has been playing in the national media.

Michelle Huang, who continued her friendship with Ravi from their high school years, said in a New Jersey court room that Ravi not only spied on Clementi but also sent the message "Keep the gays away."

The text message read: 'I got so creeped out after Sunday.' Huang suggested that Clementi and his date, who appeared under tight security in the court on Friday and is referred as MB by the court order to protect his identity, might use Ravi's bed. Huang said that Ravi replied saying, 'My webcam checks my bed, hahaha….Yeah, keep the gays away.'

She also said she thought Ravi planned to broadcast another date Clementi was going to have with his gay friend. 'Mad people are going to do it,' she said Ravi texted her.

"People are having a viewing party with a bottle of Bacardi and beer in this kids room for my roommate."

The second broadcast did not happen due to a technical problem, but Clementi, 18, who had come to know of the first broadcast took his own life the next day of the proposed 'viewing party'. He jumped off a bridge into the Hudson River on September 20, 2010.

Huang's testimony is crucial for the prosecution because it is building the most serious charge against Ravi that his action was not a childish act or something that stemmed from the fear (as Ravi's lawyer Steven Altman has said) that an older gay man Clementi was dating might steal Ravi's electronic equipment.

Authorities say the action was motivated by Ravi's bias against and hatred for gays. If found guilty of the more serious charges against him, Ravi faces 10 years in prison. It is likely he will serve a few years and then be deported to India. He has rejected a plea bargain offer, his family and friends suggest, because he expects to be completely cleared of any wrongdoing.

Ravi, who left Rutgers soon after he was arrested following Clementi's death, sat almost immobile during the highly damaging testimony. The 20-year-old is not charged with Clementi's death. Though he looks many years younger than his age and has boyish charm, occasionally the tension building on his face was palpable as he studiously avoided looking at his former college mates or Clementi's family members, especially the parents. Each day of the trial, half a dozen of Ravi's own family members have been coming to the court.

That "viewing party" never happened, Ravi wrote in a subsequent text exchange and Huang said when she brought up the subject. Ravi responded, 'No, that was a joke.'

Huang's credibility came under fire, The New York Times reported, when defence attorney Altman got her to admit when he asked if some of the testimony she gave police investigators in January was "impacted by what you read in the newspaper."

Last week, Rutgers graduate Geoffrey Irving testified that Ravi had told him after a frisbee practice that he set up the webcam and was planning to do it again on the evening of September 21.

Altman, a seasoned and highly respected defence lawyer, argued last week that Ravi had switched on the webcam to monitor his personal items because he did not trust his roommate's visitor, not necessarily because Clementi was gay.

Molly Wei, a friend of Ravi from high school and who was also studying at Rutgers, was arrested soon after Clementi's suicide. She entered a plea deal with the prosecution and admitted joining Ravi to watch the September 19, 2010, webcam airing.

She reached a plea deal in May 2011 that required her to testify against Ravi and complete a three-year program on cyber bullying and do 300 hours of community service. The charges will be dropped if she fulfills the requirement.

Wei testified last week that she was surprised to learn that Ravi had talked and taken to Twitter to announce the webcam and encouraged others watch an upcoming date Clementi was having with the stranger he had befriended through a gay website.

"I was very surprised because my friends brought it up, and I had no idea how they knew," Wei said, "but they said that Dharun had told them. They told me about these Twitter, tweets that they received on Tuesday about him trying to have a viewing party."

Clementi's suicide was Page 1 news -- as often the ongoing trial is -- in New Jersey newspapers as well as national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today.

The reports stirred discussions on bullying, with President Barack Obama releasing a videotaped message less than a month later condemning such treatment. Clementi's family accepted the use of his name on federal anti-harassment legislation called the "Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act."

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