PISCATAWAY, N.J. (CBS/AP) — Should a college prank gone horribly wrong be prosecuted as a hate crime?
That’s the question prosecutors face as they consider filing bias-crime charges against two college freshmen accused of streaming online video of a classmate’s sexual encounter with another man, a huge divide has emerged between those who support the suspects and those who want to see them punished.
The saga that unfolded this week at Rutgers University has become a flashpoint for debate after the revelation that 18-year-old Tyler Clementi had jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22.
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Leading up to the suicide, a post appeared on a website catering to gay men seeking 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 someone in that situation might have felt.
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.
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.
A person can be found guilty of a bias crime in New Jersey if the jury agrees that he or she committed a crime because of a belief that the victim is a member of a protected group, such as a racial minority or gay.
Ravi’s lawyer has not responded to requests for comment.
Messages left with an attorney believed to be representing Wei were not returned.
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.”
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