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Rutgers suicide incident raises legal issues

By Moni Basu, CNN
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Rutgers community shocked by suicide
  • Tyler Clementi committed suicide after the broadcast of a sexual encounter with a man
  • Two Rutgers University students have been charged with invasion of privacy
  • Prosecutors are determining whether they will face additional charges
  • Some say new technology mandates tougher laws

(CNN) -- Amid intense public attention, Tyler Clementi's family remained quiet Friday, except to say that their personal tragedy has raised a host of legal issues for the country.

"We understand that our family's personal tragedy presents important legal issues for the country as well for us," said a statement from the family of the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after an internet broadcast of him engaged in a sexual encounter with a man.

"Regardless of legal outcomes, our hope is that our family's personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity," the statement said.

The legal closure to this case is far from apparent. It's still not clear what charges Clementi's roommate Dhuran Ravi and his friend Molly Wei will ultimately face.

The two Rutgers students have been charged with invasion of privacy for surreptitiously placing a webcam in Ravi's dorm room and streaming online Clementi's encounter with another man.

Ravi allegedly sent messages on Twitter about the video and invited his friends to watch the video on iChat.

On September 22, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, which spans the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey.

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New Jersey prosecutors were determining Friday whether additional charges, including bias, may be brought against Ravi and Wei.

''The initial focus of this investigation has been to determine who was responsible for remotely activating the camera in the dormitory room of the student and then transmitting the encounter on the internet,'' Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce J. Kaplan said.

''Now that two individuals have been charged with invasion of privacy, we will be making every effort to assess whether bias played a role in the incident, and, if so, we will bring appropriate charges,'' Kaplan said in a statement.

What is clear, though, is that the Rutgers case has reignited debate over cyber incivility and whether tougher privacy laws are needed in a technologically advanced age when anyone can instantly disseminate information about another person with relative ease.

Newark attorney Henry Klingeman, who used to be a federal prosecutor, said that in many cases, it's unlikely that anyone would serve significant jail time on invasion of privacy charges like Ravi and Wei are facing. He said federal laws are stronger, but most cases are tried in state courts.

Gathering or viewing sexual pictures without consent is a fourth-degree crime, and broadcasting them is a third-degree crime.

"State laws treat it like a nuisance, like graffiti on a street," Klingeman said.

He likened cyber-voyeurism to the illegal recording of phone calls and said: "It took a while for the law to catch up. Now, wiretapping is illegal."

This summer, ESPN reporter Erin Andrews appeared in Congress to express support for federal legislation to strengthen stalking laws.

The man convicted of videotaping her through a hotel peephole was sentenced to two years in prison. Her sentence, she said, was a lifetime of looking over her shoulder.

The legislation would cover technologies such as electronic monitoring, spyware, bugging and video surveillance, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-California. Under current law, a victim must have a "reasonable fear of physical injury" before a case can be prosecuted, Sanchez said. Sometimes, that is too late.

All the facts in the Clementi case are yet to surface.

Ravi's lawyer, Steve Altman, told The Star Ledger newspaper that he did not see how, under New Jersey law, Ravi and Wei could be held accountable for Clementi's suicide.

"To my knowledge, whatever the allegations are that justify the criminal complaints filed against the students, would not justify under either legal or common law any culpability for the suicide," Altman told the newspaper.

What is alleged is that on the evening of September 19, Ravi sent a message by Twitter about his roommate, Clementi.

"Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Ravi tried to use the webcam again two days later, on September 21, according to the Middlesex County prosecutor's office.

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again," Ravi is believed to have tweeted.

The next day, Clementi, 18, was dead.

A mobile status update September 22 on a Facebook page purportedly belonging to Clementi said: "jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

"If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university's standards of decency and humanity," Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick said after the news of Clementi's death broke.

If Ravi and Wei are convicted on the invasion of privacy charges, they face a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

The punishment, said Washington privacy lawyer Christopher Wolf, seems too lenient for the crime if it's proved that Clementi's suicide was triggered by the webcam video.

Wolf said the Rutgers incident reminded him of Lori Drew, the Missouri woman convicted on three misdemeanor counts of accessing protected computers without authorization.

Prosecutors argued that Drew illegally used the social networking site MySpace to humiliate a 13-year-old girl, who authorities said killed herself after receiving derogatory messages.

In that case, Wolf said, prosecutors found that there were not any existing laws that allowed them to charge Drew for the crime they said was committed.

But in America, Wolf said, revisions in the law will not come easy.

"We also have to remember we have First Amendment laws," he said. "What we really need is a new culture of cyber civility."

When fourth-graders are obtaining Facebook pages, Wolf said, parents can no longer afford to abdicate computer usage rules to the kids because they happen to be more technologically savvy than they are.

Wolf said service providers and institutions -- like Rutgers -- need to take more responsibility for online content.

"There isn't an easy solution," he said. "But hateful words do cause physical harm. The blog-brain barrier has been breached.

"I'm a privacy lawyer by profession, but I think we're making a mistake if we depend just on the law."

CNN's Swetha Iyengar, Mia Aquino and Phil Gast contributed to this report.