Emotions run high at Rutgers after teen's suicide
Published: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Rutgers University students wore black on Friday to remember a classmate who committed suicide as a lawmaker proposed stiffer penalties for invasion of privacy — the charge against the roommate accused of secretly streaming video of the victim's sexual tryst with a man.
Calling it "Black Friday," students at New Jersey's largest university were encouraged to leave flowers or mementoes at a makeshift memorial for 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, the violin-playing freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River last week.
The Rutgers football team also planned a moment of silence before its game Saturday against Tulane.
The saga that unfolded this week at Rutgers has become a flashpoint for debate after the revelation of Clementi's suicide.
Shortly before he died, a post appeared on a website catering to gay men that sought advice on what to do after learning that a roommate secretly filmed a liaison. While it's impossible to be certain that that post and subsequent ones were made by Clementi, they mirror the same timeline as the alleged filming and reflect the anguish likely in such a situation.
Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, of Plainsboro, N.J., and another student, and Molly Wei, of Princeton, N.J., both 18, are charged with invasion of privacy, with the most serious charges carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison.
If the freshly introduced bill passes and even if they're convicted, their penalties would stick under the old law providing for up to five years in prison.
But Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan said Thursday that more charges were possible under New Jersey's hate-crimes law.
"We will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident, and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges," he said in a statement.
The legal question has to do with the motive.
People can be found guilty of a bias crime in New Jersey if a jury agrees they committed a crime because of a belief that the victim is a member of a protected group, such as a racial minority or gays and lesbians.
Ravi's lawyer has not responded to requests for comment. Messages left with an attorney believed to be representing Wei were not returned.
Sen. Shirley Turner's bill would raise the maximum fine for privacy invasion from $15,000 to $150,000 and would increase the possible prison sentence to five to 10 years, from the current three to five years.
"Whether this was a cruel joke or outright harassment of this student, what happened on Rutgers University's campus was a crime," the Democrat said. "Videotaping someone without their knowledge, especially in an intimate setting, and distributing the images over the Internet is serious. We need to send a clear message that we're not going to take this lightly."
High school friends of the suspects, both 2010 graduates of West Windsor-Plainsboro High, say the suspects have no problem with gay people.
"He had gay friends," Derek Yan, 16, told The Associated Press. Yan said that he chatted online with Ravi, an Ultimate Frisbee player, about college life in recent weeks. "He said he was lucky to have a good roommate," Yan said. "He said his roommate was cool."
Jim McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who resigned after he announced he was a "gay American," said Friday he was "filled with great sadness" at Clementi's suicide. He talked about the difficulties of coming to terms with being gay, especially while young.
"He was trying to find a community online, but at the same time basically being terrorized online, by roommates," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Websites have popped up in defense of the suspects, with some proclaiming their innocence or calling their alleged actions a prank. Countless other sites, however, were dedicated to bashing the suspects or calling for stiffer charges, including manslaughter.
The comments on the pages are emotional and sometimes vitriolic. Some postings call the suspects "sickos" and "cold-blooded killers" while others display homophobia and racism (both suspects are minorities), even thanking the suspects for their possible role in a gay man's death.
The saga took another twist when the website Gawker reported that someone started a discussion on a graphic gay-oriented website after realizing his roommate was "spying" on him with a webcam.
The author described his conflicted feelings after reading his roommate's tweets about the author kissing a guy in their room while he watched from afar. Should he report his roommate or request a room change? Would either help or just make things worse? The author later wrote that he told a resident assistant about the filming — and that he unplugged his roommate's computer and searched the room for hidden cameras before another liaison.
The last known communication from Clementi was on his Facebook page. It said, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
Friends were shocked that Clementi, a talented violinist who was known as quiet but happy, would have been embroiled in scandal — or would have killed himself.
"I would never expect this to happen to him," said John Shen, a student at the New York Institute of Technology and a high school friend of Clementi's who last saw him about a month ago. "He's such a good kid. I've never seen him angry."
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield. Contributing to this report were Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York; videographers Ted Shaffrey in Ridgewood and Bonny Ghosh in Plainsboro; and writers Angela Delli Santi in Trenton and Wayne Parry in Atlantic City.