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Deportation is at stake in Rutgers webcam trial

March 14, 2012 4:04:17 PM PDT
Jurors considering the fate of a former Rutgers University student accused of watching his roommate's intimate liaison on a webcam won't be deciding just whether he'll go to prison - they also could indirectly determine whether he's deported to his native India.

Dharun Ravi, now 20, is accused of viewing a few seconds of his roommate's encounter with another man in their dorm room and telling people about it in text messages, tweets and in person. He could face years in prison if convicted of charges including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, a hate crime.

Lawyers gave their summations Tuesday in the case, which has gotten enormous attention since the events of September 2010, when the roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi could also be sent back to India, where he was born and remains a citizen, if convicted. The risk of deportation is highest if he is convicted on the most serious charges, said Michael Wildes, a New York City immigration lawyer who is not involved in the case.

Last year, prosecutors offered Ravi, who is in the U.S. legally, a plea bargain that called for no prison time - and help avoiding deportation.

"The decision was made by his legal team to roll the dice," Wildes said. "We'll see whether it was a good decision."

Immigration authorities could seek to have Ravi deported if he is convicted of any crime that lands him a prison sentence of a year or more, Wildes said.

In theory, all 15 of the charges he faces - among them are hindering apprehension, tampering with a witness and tampering with evidence - could result in prison time. But incarceration is likely only if he's convicted of one of the two second-degree bias intimidation charges he faces.

The government could also seek to deport Ravi if he's convicted of a crime it considers to involve "moral turpitude," Wildes said, whether he's imprisoned for it or not. The list of those crimes is long.

Any deportation decision would have to be made by a federal immigration judge. And, Wildes said, Ravi could argue that his deportation would harm U.S. citizens, or that he should remain in the country because he has lived here legally with his family since he was a young boy and because he has no prior criminal record.

As for the immigration help from state authorities, Wildes said such offers are usually "empty promises."

The trial - which included testimony from about 30 witnesses over 12 days, in addition to the closing arguments - focused on a few days in the Rutgers dorm where Ravi and Clementi, both 18-year-olds from well-off New Jersey suburbs, were randomly assigned to be first-year roommates.

Jurors asked for a copy of the judge's instructions to them on Wednesday afternoon, after less than an hour of deliberations. Judge Glenn Berman said he didn't have a copy to give them, but said he would answer specific questions if they had them. A bit later, they asked about one of the bias intimidation charges, wanting to know definitions of "intimidation" and "purpose."

The jury went home for the night after about four hours of deliberation and no quick verdict.

There are relatively few factual disputes in the case. The challenge for jurors could be deciding whether the laws apply to what Ravi is alleged to have done.

Ravi can be convicted of intimidation if he's also found guilty of an underlying invasion-of-privacy charge. And to convict him of bias intimidation, jurors would have to be convinced that he intended to intimidate Clementi or his guest, or that Clementi reasonably believed Ravi wanted to intimidate him because he was gay.

Clementi's death was one in a string of suicides by young gays around the country in September 2010 and became probably the best known. President Barack Obama commented on it in an online video, as did talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case, and Rutgers changed housing policies to allow opposite-sex roommates in an effort to make a more comfortable environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

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