Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to spy on his roommate in an intimate encounter with another man, was convicted of 15 counts of invasion of privacy, evidence tampering and hate crimes in March.
The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, propelling the case to national prominence and highlighting the growing problem of cyberbullying and teenage homophobia. Ravi, who was just 18 at the time, was caught up in the resulting national maelstrom and now faces up to 10 years in prison and deportation to India.
Ravi had rejected a plea bargain deal that would have spared him jail time, but required 600 hours of community service, probation and a commitment by the prosecution to help him stave off deportation. It is perhaps the more appropriate punishment for what was unquestionably loathsome, reprehensible and mean conduct. Whether it rose to the level of a hate crime remains hotly debated and in subsequent media interviews Ravi has denied that he was homophobic. The prosecution, however, argued at the trial that Ravi’s actions “were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s sexual orientation, and they were planned to expose Tyler Clementi’s private sexual activity.” A jury that weighed the evidence seems to have concurred.
Ravi’s fate now rests in the hands of the judge who will sentence him in May. It is likely that he will face at least some jail time and as a permanent resident, most immigration attorneys believe, he is at serious risk of deportation at the conclusion of his sentence.
Cyberbullying and harassment of gay teenagers are serious issues nationwide and equally, perhaps even more so, within the Indian community. Ravi’s case should serve as a wake-up call and prompt serious introspection and dialogue among Indian Americans.
New Jersey Indians have long been among the prime targets of hate crimes and can relate well to the harassment and persecution that gay teens are subjected to in schools, playgrounds and colleges every day. From the tweets and email exchanges disclosed at trial it is abundantly clear that even if Ravi wasn’t homophobic, as he insists, he was mocking and relishing in his roommate’s sexual orientation.
At the same time, equating hate-motivated murders, assaults, violent crimes and cross burnings that are designed to intimidate with cyberbullying by cruel teenagers, albeit in this occasion with heartrending consequences, is quite a stretch and in the long run likely to undermine both the efficacy of and public support for hate crime laws. The proper resolution in this case is a restrained sentence that adequately punishes and sends a resolute signal on the gravity and cruelty of cyberbullying, but does not overreach. But even that is likely to be harsher than the plea agreement Ravi turned down.
The judicial system is frequently irrational, unfair and even cruel. Take the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager, fatally shot by a seemingly trigger-happy, overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fl., who claimed self defense.
The local police declined to either arrest or charge George Zimmerman, 28, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives the benefit of the doubt to individuals claiming self-defense, even though Zimmerman apparently ignored a 9/11 dispatcher’s instructions to stop following Martin and by all accounts and 9/11 recordings may have shadowed and accosted his victim.
Zimmerman has the right to assert a self-defense claim under Florida’s bizarre law, which encourages vigilantism and belligerence, not just in one’s home, but even in public places. But surely the proper venue for evaluating the legitimacy of that defense is a courtroom. It is hard to reconcile the overzealousness displayed in the prosecution of Ravi with the refusal of the Sanford police to even book a man who stalked, confronted, shot and killed an innocent and unarmed teenager running an errand for his father.
But then such is the irrationality of American law and its judicial system. Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.” New Jersey’s hate crime and Florida’s stand your ground laws may be entering just that territory.