Did Dharun Ravi Commit a Hateless Hate Crime?


As Tim Cavanaugh noted earlier this afternoon, Dharun Ravi was convicted today of most of the charges against him, including the "hate crime" of "bias intimidation," which carries a penalty of five to 10 years in prison. Notably, the jury acquitted Ravi of deliberately trying to intimidate his roommate, Tyler Clementi, "because of" his sexual orientation on September 19, 2010, when he used a webcam in his dorm room to watch Clementi kiss another man. But as I pointed out on Wednesday, that was not the end of the matter. The jury instead concluded that Ravi invaded his roommate's privacy "under circumstances that caused Tyler Clementi to be intimidated, and considering the manner in which the offense was committed, Clementi reasonably believed that he was selected to be the target of the offense because of sexual orientation." That count hinges not on Ravi's intent to intimidate but on Clementi's inferred state of mind and a judgment about whether that state of mind was reasonable.

By contrast, the jury concluded that when Ravi tried to watch another encounter between Clementi and the same man two days later, he did so "with the purpose to intimidate Tyler Clementi because of sexual orientation." The difference presumably is due to the fact that the first viewing—which Ravi claimed was motivated by his fear that Clementi's visitor might steal his property, and which he terminated after a few seconds when he saw the men kissing—was less calculated the the attempted second viewing (which did not actually happen, apparently because Clementi unplugged Ravi's computer). Ravi not only planned the second viewing but alerted his Twitter followers to it, daring them to watch.

Still, the prosecution never really substantiated its claim that Ravi deliberately sought to intimidate Clementi because he was gay. The most incriminating statement it introduced was Ravi's joke that the webcam would "keep the gays away," which might have reflected nothing more than his discomfort with the sexual activity going on in his room, a feeling that was compounded by the fact that Clementi's visitor was an older man from off campus who struck Ravi as scruffy and taciturn. A naive 18-year-old's uneasiness is such a situation is not the same as anti-gay hatred, and there is very little evidence that Ravi harbored antipathy toward homosexuals in general or Clementi in particular (leaving aside the point that such opinions should not be subject to criminal penalties). For all we know, Ravi was completely sincere when he said in a note of apology to Clementi (written after Clementi complained about the spying and asked for a room change) that he had nothing against gay people, a point that was confirmed by the prosecution's own witnesses. Certainly there was reasonable doubt on that question.

As for finding Ravi guilty of an unintentional, hateless hate crime, as the jury did with regard to the September 19 incident, the concept only compounds the injustice of imposing extra punishment for crimes motivated by bigotry. Under New Jersey's law, bigotry is not even necessary. Assuming the underlying offense (in this case, invasion of privacy) was intentional, there need not be any evidence that the intimidation was. Surmising how Clementi felt in this situation based on the available evidence—in particular, distinguishing between anger and intimidation—is fraught with uncertainty, and the judgment as to whether his imagined feelings were reasonable is even harder to make. In a case like this, where the victim cannot testify about what he was thinking and no one else knows, these elements have reasonable doubt built into them.

The jury, which deliberated for more than two days, rejected a bunch of counts against Ravi, including the hate crime charges involving Clementi's visitor (who testfied during the trial, identified only as M.B.). Because of this selectivity, one juror told the Newark Star-Ledger, "You feel like justice has been served." I don't. Ravi is scheduled to be sentenced on May 21. In addition to a potentially lengthy prison sentence, he faces the likelihood of deportation to India, where he was born. Reprehensible as his conduct was, he does not deserve either of those punishments. Had Clementi not killed himself a few days after what he dismissively called Ravi's "five sec peep," leading to the completely unproven conjecture that Ravi's spying drove him to suicide (a claim the prosecution never made during the trial), Ravi probably would not have faced criminal charges at all, let alone a possible 10-year sentence. Before the trial the prosecutors offered him a deal that involved no jail time and a chance to avoid deportation, which suggests even they do not believe he should be punished as severely as a violent felon. So in addition to all of the questionable crimes for which Ravi is about to be punished, there is one more: insisting on his right to a trial.

Previous coverage of the case here.