Jury in Rutgers spy case hears more about webcam

March 1, 2012 - 2:16 AM
Rutgers Suicide

Dharun Ravi turns to look behind him during his trial in New Brunswick, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012. Ravi is accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, during an intimate encounter with another man. Days later Clementi committed suicide. Ravi, 19, faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in state prison. (AP Photo/The Courier-News, Kathy Johnson, Pool)

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J (AP) — A Rutgers student gave some of the most damaging testimony yet Wednesday in a former classmate's trial for allegedly using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate encounter with another man.

Lokesh Ojha described helping the defendant, Dharun Ravi, adjust his webcam so he could show a clear view of his roommate's bed. Authorities say that by then, Ravi had already spied on roommate Tyler Clementi, once and said that on that night — Sept. 21, 2010 — he was intending to do it again.

A day later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

After prosecutors finished questioning Ojha, Ravi's defense lawyer, Steven Altman, cross-examined Ojha and new, more complicated, stories began to emerge. Ojha appeared to be fighting back tears as he acknowledged that he didn't tell the entire truth under oath in an early meeting with investigators.

"I thought my college career was over," he said quietly as he looked up from staring down at the top of the witness stand.

"Why," Altman asked.

"Because I helped him," Ojha said. "I helped him set it up."

He got Ojha to say that while he was trying to help Ravi with his webcam, Ravi never told him why he wanted the help.

It was another moment in which Ravi's defense team found at least some help from a student called to testify by prosecutors.

Ravi is charged with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Most of the witnesses so far have been students who were in their first weeks of college, and now as they're testifying, they're still only 19 or 20.

Altman, a veteran lawyer, has taken on a grandfatherly demeanor with some of them, mixing up "tweets" and "texts" with students who use their own slang. With Ojha, he was harsher, asking if he knew that he could go to jail for lying under oath.

Altman has asked each student a line of questions about whether Ravi ever said bad things about Clementi or gay people generally. Each has said no, perhaps poking some holes in the element of the prosecution's case that Ravi's actions were motivated by malice toward gays.

Ojha, a lanky student who still attends Rutgers, was the first student to say that he tried to connect with Ravi's webcam on Sept. 21, the night Ravi posted on Twitter: "Anyone with iChat,I dare you to videochat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again."

But Ojha didn't say what he expected to see when he was pressed by Altman.

Altman asked why he tried to connect.

"Curiosity," he said, "to see if he was actually going to do it."

"What?" Altman asked.

"To see if Dharun was actually going to stream it," Ojha said.

Ojha testified that he later told Ravi that the webstream didn't work that night. "I said: 'Yo, it didn't work.' He said: 'Yeah, I've been getting that from a lot of people. You've got to brush it off.'"

Ojha is expected to be back on the witness stand Thursday. There's a chance that prosecutors will also call to testify the man students said they saw kissing Clementi in a streaming video. He's been identified in court papers so far only by his initials, M.B., because prosecutors say he's the victim of a sex crime. It's not clear how tightly his identity will be protected when he appears in court.

Also Wednesday, jurors heard Clementi's own words for the first time when they were read a bit of an email he sent his resident assistant about the alleged spying.

In the email, Clementi he was "extremely uncomfortable sharing a room with someone who would act in this manner."

But Judge Glenn Berman ruled that further description could not be shared with jurors: Clementi said what he called spying was "wildly inappropriate."

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