Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student charged with bias intimidation, wipes his brow as he departs the courtroom inside of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, New Brunswick, New Jersey March 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
The verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial came down on Friday. As I wrote back in September 2010, Tyler Clementi’s suicide shatters that part of me that remembers what it was like to be 18 and in the nerve-wracking process of coming out—at once both bold and shy, alight with a sense of possibility one minute, jaded and world-weary the next. I survived, as most gay people do; Tyler did not. Why? Nothing that has been revealed in the trial and subsequent reports has satisfyingly answered that question for me. And nothing about the verdict gives me an ounce of comfort.
After turning down a plea deal that would have spared him jail time, Ravi was tried on thirty-five charges related to fifteen separate counts and was found guilty on twenty-four of them. Seven of these are for tampering with evidence or hindering the prosecution; eight are for invading or attempting to invade the privacy of Clementi and his sexual partner, identified in court only as “M.B.”
If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide, it’s quite likely that these charges would never have been brought against Ravi, and the whole matter might have been resolved by Rutgers authorities. But Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge just days after Ravi, his freshman year roommate for all of three weeks, saw him making out with M.B. on his web cam, tweeted about it and then hatched a foiled plot to broadcast a second encounter. As Ian Parker’s excellent New Yorker anatomy documents, a firestorm erupted, fueled by misinformation and speculation about what actually happened. People assumed that Clementi was closeted (he was not), that Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei had watched entire sexual episodes (they only saw a few seconds of making out), that Ravi had recorded the incidents (he did not), that he successfully broadcast them online (he did not) and that Clementi was the victim of widespread homophobic bullying (he was not). Gay rights advocates recklessly called for manslaughter and hate crimes charges to be brought against Ravi and Wei. Facing intense public pressure, the Middlesex county prosecutor relented, in part. Wei struck a plea deal and testified against Ravi, who was convicted not just of invasion of privacy but on nine additional charges of bias intimidation, turning the conviction into a hate crime and creating the very real possibility that he could be sent to jail for ten years. His sentencing is on May 21. Because he is an immigrant, there is also a chance that Ravi could be deported to India.
On civil liberties grounds, I’m opposed to all forms of hate crimes legislation—punish the crime, not the thought, I say. But since hate crimes laws are on the books, it’s worth reviewing whether or not they were appropriately applied to this case. When hate crimes were expanded to include sexual orientation in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, the argument for them was that they were necessary to prosecute violent crimes perpetrated by extremist agents of hate who were terrorizing whole communities. (Whether or not that description applies to Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, is subject to debate. Whether or not hate crimes statutes were necessary to throw the book at them is not. Wyoming had no hate crimes statute, but McKinney and Henderson will both die in jail.) Dharun Ravi may have been, as one friend described him, “so much of a jerk,” but no one has alleged that he is a violent criminal. But is he a hater?