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 behind him, 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.
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“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.”
Ravi himself did not speak in court on Monday. His silence got him chastised by the judge, who wanted to hear an apology.
In an interview with The Star-Ledger that happened before the sentencing but was published afterward, Ravi said he didn’t apologize because it “would sound rehearsed and empty.”
“When politicians give public apologies, to me, it always sounds so insincere and false,” he said. “No matter what I say, people will take it that way.”
Indeed, Clementi’s brother, James, who spoke at the sentencing, said that there was a time when an apology would have mattered to him. But he didn’t want to hear one so late.
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.