If I were a lawyer:

If I were a lawyer I would have begged for the chance to represent Dharun Ravi in the cyber crime trial that ended last week in New Brunswick, with Ravi being convicted on all counts and now facing a May 22 sentencing that could lead to 10 years in prison and deportation to his native India.

Of course I am not a lawyer, I’m only a journalist, and at the great trials of our day I am relegated to the spectators’ section (or more often the television room at home), watching occasionally in awe as the lawyers command the stage.

Back in the 1970s I was lucky enough to be on hand in the courtroom in Trenton when a Princeton Township resident stood trial for the murder of his wife. Colin Carpi was acquitted of that charge after a masterful defense by attorney Gerald Stockman, who attacked the credibility of the township police department.

I took more than a passing interest in Lyle and Erik Menendez, the siblings who were raised in Princeton and who then shotgunned their parents to death in 1989 in California. As luck would have it, Larry Tabak, a U.S. 1 contributor, had been a tennis tutor for the Menendez boys while they were living in Princeton. He detailed their Princeton years in a spellbinding cover story in U.S. 1. We then watched as the boys nearly beat the charge at their first trial in 1993. Both juries (one for each defendant) were deadlocked after the defense lawyer wove a story of horrific parental abuse. The story wasn’t so convincing the second time; both siblings are now in for life.

Just a few years later we joined the rest of the world at the 1995 OJ Simpson trial. This time the defendant did get off. Casting seeds of doubt by attacking the way evidence was handled and by a racially charged screenplay written by one of the police detectives (only in LA would the cop also have a screenplay), the defense proved to the jury that the glove didn’t fit.

I didn’t follow the Ravi trial so closely, but I grew more interested in the case when I read an op ed piece being published in the March 30 issue of the West Windsor-Plainsboro News (our sister publication). The writer, Shri Sadasivan, has an unusual perspective:

“I am a South Asian Indian, age 33, living in New Jersey. In more ways than one, my background is similar to Ravi Pazhani, Dharun’s father. I grew up in the same state (Tamil Nadu) and speak the same language as Ravi Pazhani. Like Ravi Pazhani, I also work in information technology and moved to the United States for work. Coincidentally until last year, I lived in the same town (Plainsboro).

“Interestingly, I also share a similarity with Tyler Clementi. I am gay.”

The point made in the piece, which appeared originally online at www.orinam.net, is that Dharun may have been as bewildered by his freshman year college surroundings as Clementi.

Writes Sadasivan: “Ravi Pazhani comes from a country that has a population of more than 1 billion. A country that gifted the KamaSutra to the rest of the world, but where it is very common for people to act like the word ‘sex’ doesn’t exist. Forget about homosexuality: even heterosexuality is never discussed in living rooms or at dinner tables. Sex is a dirty word that also never gets discussed in schools.

“According to Ian Parker’s report in the February 6 issue of the New Yorker, Dharun Ravi wrote the following to his friend Jason Tam, about his roommate’s sexuality ‘I still don’t really care, except what my parents are going to say. My dad is going to throw him out the window.’ Was Dharun Ravi’s father indeed homophobic? If so, was it because of his ignorance and that he thought homosexuality was a bad Western influence? How much of Dharun Ravi’s perceptions of homosexuality arose from needing to conform to his family and cultural expectations, compared to what he actually felt about gay people?

“If the father was not homophobic, then why did Dharun Ravi assume he was? Was it because, like many other South Asian families, his family ignored topics of sex and sexuality, giving an impression that any sexual act or expression, outside marriage, was an aberration, a condemnable act?”

If I were a lawyer, I wouldn’t worry about the morality of Dharun’s actions, I’d concentrate on the legality. Building on the strategies of the Carpi and OJ trials, I would first put someone else on trial. First up: the resident adviser and the dean of students. What rules govern use of a shared room on campus? How are conflicts resolved when one student wants a room for a sexual encounter and another student wants to use the room to study? What training was provided to the RA?

What support is offered to gay students on the Rutgers campus. (A fair amount, we would assume.) What support (if any, at all) is offered to students who are uncomfortable around gay students?

Then I would borrow a page from the Menendez defense and take on the Ravi family. Reporters at the trial noted the appearance of family friends who had testified that they had never heard Dharun express a single unkind word about homosexuality. Under cross examination, they also admitted they had never had any discussion involving homosexuality.

That would trigger another attack. Why not? A little research would probably reveal any number of instances in which Dharun’s high school, WW-P North, had sponsored programs addressing alternative lifestyles. No doubt literature had been sent home — had Dharun’s parents ever discussed it with him? If not, why not?

If I were a lawyer, hell-bent on freeing my client, I would throw as much mud on the wall as possible.

If I were a lawyer, I might wish I were a newspaper reporter instead.

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