Conviction Overturned In Case Of Rutgers Student Whose Roommate Committed Suicide After Being Secretly Filmed

from the good-to-see dept

Four and a half years ago, we wrote about our serious concerns about the conviction of Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers student who surreptitiously filmed his roommate engaged in a sexual encounter. The roommate, Tyler Clementi, later killed himself, after finding out that he had been filmed. That part was a big story, and kicked off a variety of discussions, some of which were more reasonable than others. But as we noted back then, what was most troubling about the legal case and conviction of Ravi was that he was really being prosecuted for what Clementi did, rather than what Ravi did.

As we noted, Ravi filming Clementi was definitely creepy, immature and dumb. But criminal? If Ravi had just filmed Clementi and nothing happened, there never would have been a prosecution. Ravi was really being prosecuted because Clementi killed himself — and that’s problematic. As we’ve explained a few times, while there’s an obvious emotional reaction to someone killing themselves, no one fully knows why they did it other than the individuals themselves. And, blaming others for mean things they may have done after someone commits suicide is a really dangerous place to go. It actually encourages suicide by letting people think that killing themselves will “punish” those who are tormenting them. But the biggest thing is that we shouldn’t blame one person based on the actions of another.

It only took four and a half years, but Ravi’s conviction has now been overturned by an appeals court. You can read the full opinion here.

After Ravi’s conviction in 2012, the state Supreme Court in a separate case struck down part of the state’s bias crime statute that focused on the victim’s state of mind. According to that case, it is the defendant’s state of mind and intent that is important, not the victim’s.

The appellate court said the prosecution conceded in its oral arguments four of Ravi’s bias convictions should “be void as a matter of law,” and, accordingly, dismissed those charges with prejudice. The court also dismissed Ravi’s conviction on hindering his own apprehension and tampering with witnesses.

Of course, this isn’t over yet. The court ordered a new trial, claiming that the original one was biased — and there’s still a chance that prosecutors may appeal this ruling to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

As for the reasoning of the court, it pointed out that prosecutors basically focused on Clementi’s actions, rather than the defendant’s (Ravi’s), and presented an unfair and biased picture to the jury:

After carefully reviewing the record developed at trial, it is clear that the evidence the State presented to prove the bias intimidation charges under N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1(a)(3) permeated the entire case against defendant, rendering any attempt to salvage the convictions under the remaining charges futile. The State 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 prosecutor aggressively pressed this point to the jury in her eloquent closing argument.

It is unreasonable to expect a rational juror to remain unaffected by this evidence. In light of the Court’s ruling in Pomianek, admission of T.C.’s state of mind evidence constituted an error “of such a nature to have been clearly capable of producing an unjust result.”

In other words, exactly as we’ve talked about for years: when you go after someone because someone else committed suicide, the emotional aspects of the case are likely to completely steamroll the legal issues. Thankfully, the court has finally recognized that, even if only four years too late.

None of that is to suggest that what Ravi did was right, or that Clementi’s suicide wasn’t tragic. Ravi did something really stupid and immature. But stupid and immature doesn’t mean criminal. Hopefully the prosecutors just decide to cut their losses and drop the case altogether.

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Comments on “Conviction Overturned In Case Of Rutgers Student Whose Roommate Committed Suicide After Being Secretly Filmed”

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40 Comments
Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

As we’ve explained a few times, while there’s an obvious emotional reaction to someone killing themselves, no one fully knows why they did it other than the individuals themselves. And, blaming others for mean things they may have done after someone commits suicide is a really dangerous place to go. It actually encourages suicide by letting people think that killing themselves will “punish” those who are tormenting them. But the biggest thing is that we shouldn’t blame one person based on the actions of another.

…unless, of course, it’s Aaron Swartz, in which case it’s all the prosecutors’ fault for driving him to suicide by doing their job.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

An interesting counter-point, but I tihnk there’s a distinction to be made in the state’s exercise (read abuse, IMO) of its power.

Indeed. Possibly one of the hardest lines to draw – Logically, there has to be a line where stupid/assholish behaviour crosses into actual abuse worthy of punishment by law, but it’s nothing you could ever point to, except on a case-by-case basis.

On the other hand, IMO the abuse of a position of power over someone to intimidate or harass is is good step towards crossing that line – especially by agents of the Government…

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

That’s not the “larger point” that I was making. The point was that if blaming this guy for “driving his roommate to suicide” is a bunch of crap–and it is–then so is blaming the prosecutors for “driving Aaron Swartz to suicide,” which certainly seems to be a position that Techdirt favors.

Chris (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…unless, of course, it’s Aaron Swartz, in which case it’s all the prosecutors’ fault for driving him to suicide by doing their job.

Legally responsible and morally/ethically responsible are different things. Ravi (probably) shares some moral responsibility for Clementi’s death, but that doesn’t imply that trying to hold him legally responsible is proper, or in any way a good idea.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Doing their job? Really? The suicide may and should be ignored yes but lets not ignore the fact that the Govt piled accusations and prison years on top of each other just to screw the guy. The decision to kill himself is Aaron’s fault alone but the power abuse that may have contributed to the suicide must not be ignored. Even with all the emotional responses back then most people were outraged at the power abuse and wanted it properly punished as it should.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: My take on Aaron Swartz

…is that what the prosecution was doing was disproportionate response to activist mischief, potentially motivated by the desire to score another conviction against haxxorz. And that got emotionally complicated by Swartz’ suicide, essentially providing a worst-case scenario that the opposition could use to weaken the CFAA and Espionage acts…

…efforts that have yet failed to bear fruit, and aside from the fact that the CFAA and Espionage laws are really only used to prosecute and nail whistleblowers and other undesirables by the current administration (whoever the current admin is).

Dead bodies are always accellerant for the fires of activism and even revolution, as demonstrated by the Boston Massacre.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Swartz V Ravi

…unless, of course, it’s Aaron Swartz, in which case it’s all the prosecutors’ fault for driving him to suicide by doing their job.

The prosecutor wasn’t doing her job, she was throwing the book at Swartz for a non-crime. These people can ruin your life if they want to and you’ll never understand that till they’re all over you like a rash. And you’re not immune, you just haven’t fallen foul of them yet. I hope you never do.

In any case, Ravi’s situation is completely different, even from a purely moral standpoint (I’m not a lawyer); he intentionally set out to embarrass that lad. Swartz only shared information in an unauthorised way; the information itself was not restricted. Apples and spanners, my friend.

Jason says:

As we noted, Ravi filming Clementi was definitely creepy, immature and dumb. But criminal? If Ravi had just filmed Clementi and nothing happened, there never would have been a prosecution.

I don’t think you’re arguing that there’s nothing (or ought to be nothing) criminal about surreptitiously recording someone in a private setting, but based on the rest of this article I’m not very sure about that.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Sort of shocking that tampering with witnesses was tossed, given the behavior and how they attempted to spin what actually happened into a disney tale.

One would hope that it is actually criminal to record & broadcast people from the privacy of their own room.

One would hope that lying to authorities about having done it & shared it widely would be seen as actually criminal.

One would hope that trying to get people to lie to the authorities to hide your actions would be criminal.

Holding Ravi responsible for the suicide, is only a little to far. But one would have a really hard time making the case that if not for Ravis repeated criminal acts, the outcome would have been the same. Tyler could have been depressed or had other issues, but pretending that what Ravi did can’t be seen as contributing to the act is impossible for a reasonable person.

Ravi didn’t make the final decision for Tyler, but he set into motion a series of events. Had he not broken the law, it is possible this never would have happened. It would be nice for the law to look at the situation and decide that secretly filming others in their private moments is a crime. That making those secret tapes to entertain others is a crime. That lying to authorities about all of these things is a crime.

Ravi is an asshole. Ravi broke the law. Ravi isn’t directly responsible for Tylers death… but he sure helped.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sorry, but your logic is what lead to the bullshit conviction in the first place.

Ravi should be charged on invasion of privacy laws and the evidence surrounding them and nothing more. The suicide is completely irrelevant unless there is evidence that Ravi told Tyler to kill himself.

What if I tell someone that i did not like their hair style after they asked and then went and killed themselves? Did I just help them commit suicide? People just need to get over themselves and realize that some people will like you and others will hate you. And most simply do not give a flying fuck.

JBDragon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

So the guy got recorded while having sex? Was it some really kinky type of thing? I don’t get why you would KILL YOURSELF over it? If anything, you’d go after the person recording you!!! What was so embarrassing that you killed yourself? Not like everyone else is not having sex and doing the same things.

There is any number of actions a person could have taken after being filmed and the person doing the filming, while a huge creep, didn’t know suicide was going to be the end result. Throw his butt in jail for laws that cover the filming aspect. Really, there’s so many laws, you can throw anyone in jail for something.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

One might think your inability to understand the situation could be due to not being a homosexual from a very religious family.

Did ya know some kids still get disowned & thrown out on the streets?
Did ya know some kids get beaten to be straight?
Did ya know that it’s not illegal in all states to commit your child to a facility where they employee junk science & abuse to convert them?
Did ya know all the gays don’t know each other and build instant support groups when we get within 10 ft of each other?
Did you know that having some of your first sexual experiences shared with a group of strangers by an asshole might cause you some distress?
Did you know that having your personal life widely exposed in this way might lead to anger but not to beating the crap out of the asshole who deserves it?

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

What was so embarrassing that you killed yourself? Not like everyone else is not having sex and doing the same things.

It was a same-sex relationship. There’s a large part of the US in 2010 where this could get you disowned by your family. And it wasn’t just that Ravi recorded it. He was posting it on social media and inviting all to see it.

> Throw his butt in jail for laws that cover the filming aspect.

And that’s what they did. Ravi was tried and convicted for invasion of privacy, attempted invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. He was not charged with a role in the suicide itself.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

He taped & held a viewing party of someone in an intimate moment.
He lied to the authorities.
He tampered with witnesses.
He tried to coverup what he had done.

Seems like there are a whole bunch of crimes there beyond invasion of privacy that should be pursued.

I didn’t suggest he is responsible for the suicide, but from the moral standpoint its clear he played a big role.

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

There’s a principle in both tort and criminal law that the defendant has to take the victim as they are, not as the average person would be. It’s often called the eggshell-skull principle. The prosecution should have to prove that Ravi’s actions did cause the suicide, not just “may have” but “did, beyond a reasonable doubt”, and that what Ravi himself actually did was illegal (you never face criminal liability for acts which aren’t themselves criminal, but the outcome of criminal acts should never be irrelevant.

Dr Janice Duffy (user link) says:

Re: That Anonymous Coward

I must admit, I have no words to use to reply to That Anonymous Coward. I am unsure which is worse – your cowardice or your hypocrisy.

This week, after I was yet again attacked over the abuse and decimation of my life since I stood up against online humiliation (and won the latest court battle, albeit a minor court victory until after the appeal is handed down) my photo was in the local newspaper as well as online.

The next day I was abused and accused of being ridiculous, an extortionist and whatever has been written online since I won on liability against Google. This happened in the local shopping centre. I thought of slitting my wrists, I really did.

The abuse was vicious, cruel and and it scared me. Abuse is wrong in any context, don’t you agree, That Anonymous Coward? But I didn’t try to kill myself last Saturday. I sobbed in the rest room for half an hour and then I walked into the nearest hairdresser and asked for my hair to be cut off off. At least then, I thought, I could look after my 94 year old father without being harassed every time the media published something about my case about Google (because i am not capitulating)!.

Fighting for my rights has nearly broken me. But I did not commit suicide. Oh, i have thought about it many times during this long battle and you, That Anonymous Coward, must be proud to cause such grief and distress to one person.I’m thinking the word
starts with the letter W. Oh, maybe it is just an Aussie thing but mate, we have the prefect saying to describe you: Lower than a snake’s asshole. ass hole! You hide behind anonymity and that trash those who are upfront…that is sooo 80s.

HegemonicDistortion says:

I understand the legal point you’re making in this piece, but I’m also concerned about the justice aspect. As a starting point, when one does something that rains chaos in the life of someone else, we might start with whether humiliation (akin to the malice component in First Amendment jurisprudence) was the point or intention, as opposed to conveying info the public has a right to know but might be personally destructive to the person it’s about. Otherwise, “privacy and dignity” do seem to evaporate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Such prolific bullshit!

It is unreasonable to expect a rational juror to remain unaffected by this evidence.

No actually a rational juror WOULD remain unaffected by the evidence. But we rarely have a rational jury on hand now do we?

I would have remained unaffected. It is terrible when people kill themselves, but its fucking bullshit to blame a suicide on anyone, unless they are encouraging the suicide.

Most juries do not give a fucking flip about justice and have already been corrupted by the stupid shit the judges and the lawyers say. Court is nothing but a 3 ring circus and rational Jurors are actively avoided during selection. A rational juror is the LAST juror a prosecutor wants sitting in.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Such prolific bullshit!

–It is terrible when people kill themselves, but its fucking bullshit to blame a suicide on anyone, unless they are encouraging the suicide.

I’m with you, no one pushed the guy to kill himself, he only has himself to blame for being dead.

Man A has sex with another Man B
Man A is ashamed and embarrassed of having sex with another man.
Man A kills himself rather than deal with the results of his own actions.

If the public finding out what you did is so embarrassing you would kill yourself maybe you should not have engaged in that act in the first place.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Such prolific bullshit!

By all means setup a camera in your bedroom and open access to the world at the control of someone else.
Would you be ashamed if everyone saw you with your blowup doll?

He wasn’t that embarrassed by dating the other man, they’d gone out a few times, he was embarrassed that some pissant decided to broadcast his private moments and setup a fucking viewing party. We have no record of what was said during the time he was in the room with Tyler, before Tyler left for the final time. People in trouble tend to paint things in the best possible light towards themselves.

It is one thing for people to know he kissed another guy, it is a whole nother for them to have watched what was a private moment and turn it into the gossip of the moment and invite more people to watch the next time.

I’m glad that you can put yourself into the shoes of someone dealing with a society that openly hates them, and have no useful comment beyond saying if he was worried about being happy he shouldn’t have done it.

Do the world a favor and expand your worldview. Your life experience isn’t everyone elses, and you’re a heartless fuck for thinking it should be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Filming a person in a place where there is an expectation of privacy, without that person’s permission, should incur a jail sentence. Filming someone in their bedroom without permission should have to register as a sex offender along with a jail sentence of at least 5 yrs. I do agree the sexual offenders list needs to be changed to designate the violent from the non-violent, those that prey on children vs adults, etc
Being unknowingly filmed, especially if shared with others is an emotionally violent crime, even if all you are doing is reading a book. And to film someone during a sexual experience, especially if shared with others, can lead to a lifetime of emotional trauma. Do you all want to feel as if you are “on stage” 24/7? I do hope his sentence isn’t commuted. There has to be some place where you feel safe, that place is SUPPOSED to be your home (or dorm room).

Hugo S Cunningham (profile) says:

Same issue as Hulk Hogan v. Gawker

I cheered when a jury slapped down Gawker for invading Hulk Hogan’s privacy, and I hope prosecutors will drag this jerk back into court. Maybe Peter Thiel’s lawyer could sue him as well, except there probably is little to collect. Better to label him pornographer and sex offender, to be excluded from this country for a long time.

Richard M (profile) says:

Not really seeing the problem here

“As we noted, Ravi filming Clementi was definitely creepy, immature and dumb. But criminal?”

Do you really think this is not something that should be against the law? Seriously?

The guy secretly filmed someone having sex and then put it on the web for other people to watch.

If that is not a criminal act that deserves some jail time then it sure should be.

I can see your argument that people should not go to jail for what someone else did (in this case a suicide) but that is not what he was convicted of doing so I do not really see that justice was somehow perverted in this case.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Not really seeing the problem here

The problem is much of the charges were based on the fact a suicide occurred rather than the sleazy taping & cover up of those crimes.

Had they focused more on those bad acts than trying to get “justice” for someone “bullied to suicide” the case would have had a similar outcome. They got the conviction by focusing on the hot button issue rather than actual violations of law.

Chuck says:

Elements of the Case

This was due to be overturned right from the start.

The case against Ravi is not a valid prima facie case. Murder requires certain elements. One of those is intent. Disregarding the fact that there’s also no murder weapon here, there was blatantly obviously also zero intent. The intent was to embarrass the poor guy, not to induce a suicide. (Also, inducing a suicide is not the same thing as intent to kill and does not suffice for intent in a murder charge EVEN IF that had been Ravi’s intent.)

So the case had no merit on its face. It was invalid from day one.

I mean, there isn’t even enough here for a valid manslaughter charge, much less murder. How the hell this ever got to a jury is beyond me.

I guess this is just what happens when a DA becomes a politician first and a lawyer second. (Hint: a good DA should be the other way around.)

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