Newspaper stories about Dharun Ravi’s trial, which ended in March, frequently noted that prosecutors were not blaming him for the death of Tyler Clementi, his roommate at Rutgers University. But if Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman, had not jumped off the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010, Ravi probably never would have been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one that could send him to prison for 10 years.
The crime, “bias intimidation,” is usually tied to a violent offense motivated by bigotry. But in this case, it was based on a nonviolent offense: On September 19, 2010, after Clementi asked Ravi to leave him alone in their room with an older male visitor, Ravi used a webcam to spy on the two men. He caught a few seconds of them kissing, tweeted that he had seen Clementi “making out with a dude,” and planned another viewing during the man’s next visit two days later, daring his Twitter followers to watch. That never happened, apparently because Clementi unplugged Ravi’s computer.
When he found out about the spying and tweeting, Clementi was angry. He complained to a resident adviser and requested a room change. But it is not clear what role, if any, Ravi’s invasion of privacy played in Clementi’s suicide.
The jury that convicted Ravi nevertheless concluded that Clementi, who was openly gay, felt intimidated, and reasonably so, by what he called Ravi’s “five sec peep.” Under New Jersey law, that was enough to convict Ravi of bias intimidation. The jury also concluded that Ravi’s subsequent behavior was aimed at intimidating Clementi because of his sexual orientation, although there was no evidence that Ravi was hostile to Clementi or gay people in general. And that is why, as New York Times columnist Bill Keller put it in April, “Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison for being a jerk.”