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Defendant's gay bias debated as webcam spying trial opens

The trial of a former Rutgers University student accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate's intimate liaison with another man opened Friday with questions about whether the defendant had a problem with gay people.

A prosecutor told jurors that Dharun Ravi, now 19, spied on roommate Tyler Clementi and acted maliciously "to deprive him of his dignity." Clementi, in an act that sparked a national conversation about bullying of young gays, committed suicide days after the alleged spying in September 2010.

Ravi's lawyer insisted his client isn't bigoted. "He may be stupid at times," defense attorney Steven Altman said in his opening statement. "He's an 18-year-old boy, but he's certainly not a criminal."

Early witnesses testified that Ravi expressed discomfort about having a gay roommate, but they didn't know him to have a problem with gay people generally.

His attitude matters in the trial because the 15 charges Ravi faces include bias intimidation, which can carry a 10-year prison sentence. To get a conviction on that charge, prosecutors must persuade jurors that Ravi acted out of bias against gays.

Ravi also is charged with invasion of privacy. And he is accused of trying to cover his tracks by taking measures including deleting a Twitter message and instructing a witness what to tell police. He is not charged with Clementi's death.

In her half-hour opening statement, First Assistant Middlesex County Prosecutor Julia McClure did not mention Clementi's suicide.

But she said that Ravi's actions were intended to victimize his roommate.

"They were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's sexual orientation and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi's private sexual activity," she said.

Altman said his client saw only seconds' worth of images of Clementi and another man hugging.

"Dharun never intimidated anybody, you'll see that," Altman said. "He never transmitted any images. He never harassed his roommate, he never ridiculed his roommate, he never said anything bad about his roommate."

McClure tried to dispel that. "The defendant's acts were not a prank, they were not an accident and they were not a mistake," she said. "They were mean-spirited, they were malicious and they were criminal."