Is Dharun Ravi Guilty of 'Bias Intimidation'?

Today jurors begin their deliberations in the trial of Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student who surreptitiously watched his roommate, Tyler Clementi, kiss another man on the night of September 19, 2010. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge a few days later for reasons that remain unclear. Although Ravi officially is not charged with culpability in Clementi's death, he would not be on trial, facing a possible sentence of 10 years in prison, if Clementi were still alive. Ravi's brief invasion of Clementi's privacy, via a webcam in their dorm room, and his attempt to remotely view a second encounter with the same visitor would almost certainly have been treated as an internal university matter. Clementi had already requested a room change, and Ravi probably would have been disciplined, perhaps by suspension or even expulsion—not by five to 10 years in prison, the prescribed penalty for "bias intimidation" under New Jersey law.

In a column last month, I explained how that law, like other hate crime statutes, effectively punishes people for their opinions—in this case, opinions about gay people. But Middlesex County prosecutors were never able to show that Ravi hated gay people in general or Clementi in particular. It does seem clear that he was uncomfortable about having a gay roommate and that his discomfort was compounded by Clementi's liaisons in their dorm room with an older man who was not a student. Ravi claimed he decided to remotely activate his webcam from a friend's room across the hall because he worried that the visitor (who testified during the trial, identified only as M.B.) might steal his stuff. Friends confirmed that concern but added that Ravi also wanted to see if he had been correct in surmising that Clementi was gay. Ravi nevertheless was taken aback by his glimpse of the makeout session and turned off the camera after a few seconds. His discomfort is apparent in the notorious tweet he sent afterward: "I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Ravi's attempt to spy on Clementi and M.B. during a second encounter two days later, prior to which he sent a tweet "daring" his friends to watch, likewise suggests an ambivalent curiosity about gay sex. His actions make him out to be an insensitive blowhard, not a felon. There is essentially no evidence that Ravi spied on Clementi "with a purpose to intimidate" him "because of" his sexual orientation, as the prosecution asserts.

But that is not the end of the matter, because the jury could still convict Ravi of bias intimidation if it concludes that Clementi "reasonably believed" Ravi was trying to intimidate him. The problem for the prosecution, as Ravi's lawyer, Steven Altman, emphasized in his closing argument, is that Clementi did not seem intimidated. As Ian Parker points out in his detailed New Yorker article about the case, Clementi was not hiding his sexual orientation, and "there's little to support the idea that he was mortified by the thought that he'd been outed." And contrary to popular belief, images of Clementi's encounter with M.B. were not recorded and were never available online. Clementi initially dismissed what he called Ravi's "five sec peep" as no big deal. Upon reflection, he was angry, and after he saw Ravi's second tweet he requested a new roommate. But he nevertheless met with M.B. a second time in their dorm room (after unplugging Ravi's computer). As Altman said, these do not seem like the actions of someone who has been intimidated.

Still, it is possible that Clementi thought Ravi was trying to intimidate him. It is questionable whether that belief would have been reasonable, given that Ravi never expressed hostility against Clementi, either to him or to anyone else. In any event, the prosecution had to establish Clementi's state of mind beyond a reasonable doubt. The fact that he repeatedly checked Ravi's Twitter feed to see if there were any more messages about him does not seem like enough.

In the end, it all comes back to Clementi's suicide, which happened just as Ravi was sending him an apologetic text message that Altman shared with the jury: 

I've known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it's adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.

Even then, Ravi did not fully own up to what he had done, claiming the spying had been accidental. But there seems to have been some genuine regret mixed in with his fear of getting into trouble (which would later lead him to try covering his electronic tracks by altering or deleting tweets and instant messages, giving rise to charges of "hindering apprehension"). As immature and thoughtless as Ravi's behavior was, the prosecution has not shown his intent was malicious. A prison sentence for Ravi can be justified only by blaming him for Clementi's death—something the government insists it is not doing.

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  • Joe M||

    It's creepy as hell that most people don't blink at the idea of sorting through the contents of someone's mind to determine their punishment. I thought actions were supposed to speak louder than words?

  • Suki||

    It is older than the witch trials and facts need not get in the way.

  • Crim Law 101||

    There's no crime without mens rea.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Oh, bullshit.

  • Crim Law 101||

    You can call it bullshit all you want, but it's been central to Anglo-American law for 100s of years.

  • T||

    Haven't been keeping up, have you? Plenty o' crimes these days don't require intent. That mens rea bullshit is, like, over a hundred years old, so we've discarded it for the gloriousness of winning the future.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    Fuck a 15 year old girl who looks 21 and has a good enough ID to get into a bar and see how far your mens rea argument goes.

  • Crim Law 101||

    Yes, strict-liability crimes. There still aren't many of them in the U.S. Fortunately.

  • robc||

    Good to see you admit to spouting bullshit.

    Absolute statements are defeated with a single example.

  • Coeus||

    Mens rea isn't the standard and hasn't been for some time. The standard for non-strict-liability crimes is now culpability. And that's a horse of a different color.

  • ||

    "Intent" and "motivation" are different things, Crim. Mens rea goes to intent. Hate crimes go to motivation.

    Better hit the books a little harder!

  • Crim Law 101||

    Right you are. My point was just that determining intent does involve "sorting through the contents of someone's mind" (to a degree).

  • Joe M||

    Yes, true, but what I meant was, we've gone past intent, which indicates whether or not punishment should occur, to motivation, which determines how much punishment should occur. Like, if you're thinking of fluffy bunnies and sunny skies while beating someone up, does that mean you should get a lesser sentence?

  • Zeb||

    Or should the dud who thinks he is beating his wife for her own good get a more lenient sentence?

  • Zeb||

    I meant "dude", but "dud" works too.

  • hk||

    Great example.

  • KDN||

    I can't believe bias intimidation is an actual criminal offense.

    I hate this state.

  • Matrix||

    most of the country does, too.

  • ||

    ""I can't believe bias intimidation is an actual criminal offense.""

    Well that state dare not make intimidation its self an actual crime because it would jail most of it's own people.

  • ||

    Sorry, rules are for the little people.

  • Richie "the Boot" Boiardo||

    Yeah.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    I hate this state.

    Do like I and my wife did - GTFO.

    I was born there and lived the first 35 years of my life there (other than college, in PA). I was happy to wave it bye-bye in exchange for VA. Now, as Page Wilson (RIP) sang: "Home will always be Virginia."

  • RU Watch||

    We came to Delaware. Love it.

  • KDN||

    Delaware? Home of the I-95's 10 miles of jackbooted hell? No thanks. The state trooper wolfpacks and 55mph speed limit have turned that place off for me permanently.

    I'd leave, but I have a a good job (and security, which is weird) and the future wife is suckling from the teat of a wealthy town (Mr. Ravi's childhood district, coincidentally) so I'm in good shape. Instead I'll just be complaining for the next 40 years, tyvm.

  • ||

    The venality of prosecutors in their attempts to further their careers at the expense of anyone they can use knows no bounds.

  • ||

    The jury will convict because it is made up of American citizens who do whatever authority figures want them to do.

  • ||

    I take it you've never sat on a jury.

  • RU Watch||

    + 1

  • ||

    I don't think a gay man in the closet setting up a camera to watch his gay roomate is a bias issue.

  • Loki||

    Actually that would be a really easy way for him to get the charges dismissed. Just "come out" in the middle of the courtroom. Afterall, it's a well established "fact" that only white heterosexual males can "hate".

  • Tony||

    Being outed against your will can ruin your life--something no straight person will ever have to go through or fully understand. But prison can definitely ruin someone's life, and the kid didn't seem to want to hurt anyone, so I say the best outcome here is not to compound one tragedy with another.

  • Socialistic Individual Sparky||

    Only he wasn't outed against his will. He was openly gay.

  • ||

    Considering Clementi outed himself publicly before he even got to college, your point is irrelevant.

    People should try learning the facts of the case instead of repeating "common knowledge" about how Ravi outed him against his will or put videos online.

  • Bitter Little Middle-class Man||

    Many people are OUT to their friends and family but are NOT out for professional reasons. Plus, many religious people would be offended by the mere existence of gay people. So, many gay people choose not to come out to EVERYONE. So heller, your point is moot.

  • WTF?||

    "Many people are OUT to their friends and family but are NOT out for professional reasons. "

    Irrelevant, once it's out there it's out there and you can't control it.

    Out is out.

    "Plus, many religious people would be offended by the mere existence of gay people. "

    Which has exactly nothing to do with this.

    "So, many gay people choose not to come out to EVERYONE. "

    Incorrect, they tell a few people and HOPE it stays private, not the same. More to the point, nothing requires them to go from "not talking about it" to "talking about it" to ANYONE.

    "So heller, your point is moot."

    Actually, his point stands and nothing you said changes anything.

  • Suki||

    The science is settled.

  • NotSure||

    Fuck off with your "will never fully understand" bullshit. Having a secret you don't want people to share is nothing you have a moral monopoly on, everyone has it.

  • Tony||

    Not always one that could get you disowned by your family, fired at work, or shunned by friends.

  • Socialistic Individual Sparky||

    Fired from work? Nope. Anti-discrimination laws have taken care of that. Disowned and shunned? Not anybody else's problem.

  • RU Watch||

    Promoted is more likely. Plus a college scholarship.

  • Baby Face||

    Fired from work? Nope.

    Perhaps if the boss says I'm firing John Doe for being Gay, you are right.

    But as we all know, all they have to do is never mention it and effectively do the same thing. Shunning people from "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is what the anti-discrimination laws are suppose to do. And people the likes of you make the spirit of this legislation difficult if not impossible.

  • ||

    But as we all know, all they have to do is never mention it and effectively do the same thing.

    This is almost completely backwards. Talk to anyone who works HR, and they will tell you that SOP for someone in a "protected class" is to NOT fire them for things that would get anyone else fired.

    Why? Because they can make your life hell just because they are in a protected class, because they can bring a claim just because you fired someone who is in a protected class.

    It doesn't matter if you had good reason, no reason, or a bad reason that you cleverly didn't mention out loud.

  • Boss||

    Dean speaks the truth. You have to document the person's incompetence up the wazoo, and even then, s/he can still force you to spend a boatload defending a baseless pro se claim.

  • Baby Face||

    s/he probably don't have the money to litigate. And perhaps you guys are out-of-touch on how terminations are handled lately. Today, one is not fired, they are laid-off in large waves.

  • WTF?||

    "s/he probably don't have the money to litigate"

    They don't have to, all it takes is a call to the state labor board or the NLRB. They investigate and litigate for you.

    "Today, one is not fired, they are laid-off in large waves."

    Which changes nothing about you being wrong, and is functionally no different than firing a protected class.

  • hk||

    Yeah the left-wing freaks don't understand their overzealous laws.

  • Barely Suppressed Rage||

    Yeah, not like if it turned out you were having an affair with the boss's wife, or that you were secretly a heroine addict, or that you secretly liked to molest young kids - or dogs, or that you served hard time in prison for killing someone, or...

    Yeah, no other secret that a hetero might have could possibly be as awful for others to know about.

  • NotSure||

    Give me a break, not accepting a gay guy at work is what gets one fired, not the opposite.

    As for being disowned by the family, I can give you list of a thousand things that can get somebody disowned.

    I if hanged myself because I got caught fucking the neighbours wife, should the person who exposed me be charged with intimidation bias against swingers ? because the reality is that swingers are more shunned by society that homosexuals.

  • Baby Face||


    I if hanged myself because I got caught fucking the neighbours wife, should the person who exposed me be charged with intimidation bias against swingers ?

    If this individual that exposed it did so by invading your privacy, YES!

  • WTF?||

    Your stupidity has driven me to harm myself.

    Turn yourself in for prosecution.

  • hk||

    No the correct answer is the guy who kills himself needs to take responsibility for his actions. In this country we are all entitled to our opinions, and private property means business people make the rules.

    If you disagree use the media or twitter to fight ideas you disagree with. However you are not entitled to other people's love, property, or money.

    Private charities are superior to government charities, and well-intentioned laws.

  • hk||

    Use private charities to draw attention to the issues that trouble you, not government force. The PC police overreach.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    something no straight person will ever have to go through or fully understand.

    Oh well, if straight people can't understand, why bring it up?

    By the way, is it cold up on your cross? Would you like a sweater?

  • Mr. FIFY||

    But you want hate-crime punishment, Tony, so how does that square with your post above?

  • Not So Fast||

    Setting aside the dumb "bias intimidation" aspect, how is this different from guys who set up hidden cameras in women's bathrooms? Is that not a crime?

    Plus there's the evidence-tampering issue.

  • ||

    Its not a crime to set up hidden cameras in your own house, so its different that way.

  • Abdul||

    I think setting up a camera in your own house could be illegal if you used it to catch an unsuspecting third party doing something private. There are occsional prosecutions of perverts who tape their sex with others without the partner's consent--an act that is justifiably illegal.

    The problem with Ravi is that your average college dick move of this sort would have been handled administratively but for the fact that the victim jumped off a bridge.

  • Loki||

    Minor pet peeve: it hasn't been established that Clementi was a "victim". Unless you mean "victim" of Ravi's initial douchebaggery as opposed a "victim" of Ravi's alleged "intimidation bias". He could have jumped for any number of reasons completly unrelated to having an asshat for a roommate.

  • RU Watch||

    He could be a victim of invasion of privacy, which is a crime in NJ.

  • ||

    I think setting up a camera in your own house could be illegal if you used it to catch an unsuspecting third party doing something private.

    It gets pretty hard to argue that you have an expectation of privacy, against somebody else, when you are in their house.

  • Zeb||

    One would think so. But one would also think that, for example, it is pretty hard to argue that DUI checkpoints are not suspicionless searches.

  • RU Watch||

    Hey, why isn't Reason's resident Rutgers alum covering this story?

  • Zeb||

    I'm kind of amazed no one has mentioned this yet:
    the jury could still convict Ravi of bias intimidation if it concludes that Clementi "reasonably believed" Ravi was trying to intimidate him.

    If this sentence is accurate, he could be convicted, even if he never had any intent whatsoever to intimidate. Am I missing something here, or is this completely fucking insane? I mean, this goes beyond "thoughtcrime". It's a "what somebody else thought you thought crime". I really hope I am missing something here.

  • Bill||

    This type of hate crime law is needed to protect minorities. I think the sentence is entirely justified because he did something wrong. Even if it wasn't illegal, the prosecutors have a duty to get him on something and make an example out of him so this doesn't happen again.

  • RU Watch||

    He hasn't been sentenced yet.

  • Bill||

    True, the hypothetical sentence of 10 years.

  • hk||

    Dude you are fucking crazy. The guy panicked and killed himself, Ravi made an immature prank.

    You should be made an example of for violating the intentions of the first amendment.

  • Zeb||

    This is a joke, right?

  • Applederry||

    Whether it is or not, there are plenty of people out there who genuinely do believe it.

  • RU Watch||

    FWIW, the victim's belief has to be "reasonable."

    A person is guilty of the crime of bias intimidation if he commits ... an offense ...

    (1) with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group of individuals because of race, color, religion, [etc.]; or

    (2) knowing that the conduct constituting the offense would cause an individual or group of individuals to be intimidated [etc.]; or

    (3) under circumstances that caused any victim of the underlying offense to be intimidated and the victim, considering the manner in which the offense was committed, reasonably believed either that (a) the offense was committed with a purpose to intimidate [etc.], or (b) the victim or the victim's property was selected to be the target of the offense because of the victim's race, color, [etc.].

    N.J. Stat. § 2C:16-1

  • Bitter Little Middle-class Man||

    Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge a few days later for reasons that remain unclear. Although Ravi officially is not charged with culpability in Clementi's death, he would not be on trial, facing a possible sentence of 10 years in prison, if Clementi were still alive. Ravi's brief invasion of Clementi's privacy, via a webcam in their dorm room, and his attempt to remotely view a second encounter with the same visitor would almost certainly have been treated as an internal university matter.

    There is nothing unclear. Ravi's brief invasion of Clementi's privacy lead to Clementi's death. And, if Clementi was my son, Ravi would probably not be on trial. I would not risk a bunch of idiots like the ones on this site on the jury.

  • Samuel L. Jackson||

    YES, THEY DESERVED TO DIE! AND I HOPE THEY BURN IN HAIL!

  • ||

    Ravi's brief invasion of Clementi's privacy lead to Clementi's death.

    Since you seem to have his suicide note, you should probably turn it over to the police.

  • Baby Face||

    RC Dean, your opinion would not change even if he left a note.

  • Zeb||

    ?

  • Zeb||

    So, am I missing out on something here? Everyone else seems to have developed the ability to read minds.

  • Socialistic Individual Sparky||

    Well crap, I got skipped too. I guess this is what happens when you get stuck doing work, you miss all the goodies.

  • Socialistic Individual Sparky||

    Would you also be proud, as his parent, that you brought up a kid that couldn't deal with tough things in life?

  • Loki||

    So... we're now throwing people in prison for being insensitive douches?

    Alternate Alt-Text: I'm insensitive! I'm a very insensitive man! Everybody stop your jobs; look at the insensitive man! That's what they're paying you for!

  • Zeb||

    See my comment above. We are throwing people in prison because other people might have thought that they were being insensitive douches.

  • hk||

    Well said, I personally think this is unconstitutional. I as a minority do not deserve special treatment or defense from "thought crimes".

  • Baby Face||

    I know you people are against government intervention into anything, but I (and many other people) want the government to through people in jail that violate our privacy.

  • hk||

    No one here is against the fourth amendment, we're against the massive overreach and lack of personal responsibility in this country.

  • Boss||

    Pro se plaintiffs don't need money to litigate. All they need is time and a grudge and conveniently worded laws.

  • Boss||

    Oops, that was meant to be a reply to Baby Face up above, re suing employers. The Boss needs to brush up on this interweb thingy.

  • Shalom Beck||

    I say let the dothead gaybasher experience 7 to 10 years of "prison love," and then deport his gaping a**.

  • The Von||

    This case has always bothered me because of the way college students behave themselves. I thought having a sex tape was a badge of honor in those circles.

    Except when its not. But Ravi could contend (and might have actually believed) he was making his roommate a star.

  • Sgt. Friday||

    Unfortunately for Ravi, his (surviving) text messages tell a different story.

  • ||

    Ravi was proven biased by his own words ( gotta keep the gays out & fuck my life my roommare is gay) and definitely invaded Tyler & MBs privacy. He also obstructed the investigation. This was low level intimidation, but it would have escalated IMO. I hope he gets community service, not jail.

  • hk||

    They clearly want to make an example out of him.

    And apparently it is illegal to have an unpopular opinion. People need to blame themselves when they overreact.

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