Rutgers webcam sentence renews questions about application of hate crime laws

  • Article by: GEOFF MULVIHILL , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 22, 2012 - 2:18 AM

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - A week before Dharun Ravi was sentenced to jail for using a webcam to spy on a gay college roommate who later killed himself, supporters rallied in his support, arguing that New Jersey laws should be changed so that someone in his situation could not be found guilty of a hate crime.

In sentencing Ravi to 30 days in jail when he could have gotten years, the judge said he does not consider the case a hate crime, even though the most serious charge, bias intimidation, is the legal name for what most people — and legislators who have endorsed laws on the issue — call a hate crime.

"I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi," Judge Glen Berman said Monday. "He had no reason to, but I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity."

The dramatic and emotional saga reignited, in practical terms, some questions where philosophy eclipses law: What is hate, and how can it be a crime?

In this case, Clementi and Ravi were assigned at random to be roommates in their first year at Rutgers, New Jersey's flagship public university, in the fall of 2010. By all evidence, they hardly talked. But Ravi told friends his roommate was gay — and he wasn't happy about it.

On Sept. 19, Clementi asked Ravi to leave the room to make space for a guest.

Ravi went to a friend's dorm room and accessed the webcam on his own computer to see Clementi and his guest — identified in court only by the initials M.B. — kissing. He and his friend shut down the screen after a few seconds that time but told others about what they had seen.

Two days later, when Clementi asked for privacy again, Ravi told his Twitter followers how to see what was going on in the room that night.

The night after that, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Jurors learned that Clementi had checked his roommate's Twitter feed repeatedly in the days before his suicide.

The case almost immediately touched a nerve among gay-rights and anti-bullying activists as an example of the harassment and challenges that young people, and young gays and lesbians in particular, can face. Among those speaking out in the aftermath were President Barack Obama and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.

Prosecutors hit Ravi with 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence. The two most serious counts, bias intimidation, could have gotten him 10 years in prison, though prosecutors had said the maximum penalty was not necessary.

Ravi's lawyer, Steven Altman, said that his client was "demonized by the gay community" and that the case was "treated as if it's a murder case."

Critics of the bias-intimidation charge have argued it's what lawmakers had in mind when they crafted "hate crime" laws to mete out extra punishment to those who act out of bias against the victim's race, gender, sexual orientation, religions, national orientation or disability.

In New Jersey, a major push to adopt such laws came more than 20 years ago amid a string of attacks on Indian-Americans. The state's bias intimidation law dates to 2001 — one of many similar laws adopted around the time after Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten and left tied to a desolate fence post. He later died.

In 2009, Congress expanded federal hate-crimes legislation to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The bill is known as the Matthew Shepard Act.

Thursday evening, as they appeared on a panel after a screening of a documentary about the Shepard killing, Clementi's parents noted parallels with their son's case.

"While the circumstances were different, the effect was the same," Joe Clementi said.

Critics of the laws say they're troublesome because they require juries to consider the motive of the suspects — not just their actions. And in New Jersey, along with at least some other states, a conviction can come because the victim reasonably believes he or she is being targeted out of bias.

The whole concept bothers Bill Dobbs, a New York City gay rights activist.

"Law and order cannot solve social problems," he said.

Dr. Sanjay Nath, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and the Director of the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University in Chester, Pa., said he has trouble seeing what happened to Clementi as a hate crime.

"Whether it's a hate crime, that part I can't wrap my mind around," he said.

"When someone beats someone up and says, `You're a fag,' it's a hate crime."

Judge Berman, whose sentence for Ravi was far short of the 10-year maximum, said he looked at the bias intimidation laws in 39 states and found that New Jersey's was broader than most. The majority are used to increase sentences for those convicted of violent crimes.

In Ravi's case, the underlying crime was invasion of privacy. And whether he was hateful came up again and again.

Evidence provided by prosecutors included instant messages and tweets by Ravi that could be construed as youthful teasing, including, "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

During the trial, Ravi's lawyers called just seven witnesses. The main question for all of them was: Did he hate gays? All of them said they did not know him to.

Last week, several hundred protesters gathered at the New Jersey State House to show support for Ravi and decry what they saw as injustices in New Jersey's hate-crime laws.

At his sentencing, his mother, Sabitha Ravi, tearfully pleaded with a judge not to send her son to prison. Dharun Ravi, she said, "doesn't have any hatred in his heart toward anybody."

Clementi's mother, Jane Clementi, also in tears, told the judge Ravi did deserve incarceration because, she said, Ravi was hateful toward her son.

"Why was he so arrogant, mean-spirited and evil?" she asked.

Clementi and her family did not comment after the sentencing. But the Middlesex County prosecutor's office made its position clear by announcing it planned to appeal the sentence.

He deserved more time for a hate crime, the office said.

Ravi is likely to appeal the conviction entirely.

___

Follow Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill

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