Hate crimes

On the Verge of Serving His Jail Sentence, Dharun Ravi Apologizes

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Dharun Ravi, who plans to start serving his 30-day jail sentence tomorrow, apologized yesterday for using a webcam to spy on his Rutgers University roommate as he kissed another man, gossiping about the incident on Twitter, and daring his followers to watch another encounter between the two men:

Last Monday, I was sentenced to 3 years probation, 300 hours of community service, a fine of more than $10,000.00, and 30 days in jail. Since the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office appealed that sentence, the sentence does not have to start until the appeal is decided. Nevertheless, I decided to accept and hopefully complete the sentence as soon as possible. It's the only way I can go on with my life.

I accept responsibility for and regret my thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish choices that I made on September 19, 2010 and September 21, 2010. My behavior and actions, which at no time were motivated by hate, bigotry, prejudice or desire to hurt, humiliate or embarrass anyone, were nonetheless the wrong choices and decisions. I apologize to everyone affected by those choices.

At Ravi's sentencing last week, when he faced a possible prison term of up to 10 years, Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman scolded him for his "unimpressive" expressions of regret. "I heard this jury say 'guilty' 288 times—24 questions, 12 jurors—that's the multiplication," Berman said. "And I haven't heard you apologize once." Ravi, who chose not to address the court, told the Newark Star-Ledger anything he said prior to sentencing would be dismissed as an insincere bid for leniency. Yesterday's statement may or may not be what Berman was looking for, but those who thought he let Ravi off too lightly are bound to view it as inadequate, especially since Ravi did not mention his roommate, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself a few days after the webcam incident for reasons that remain unclear. Although Ravi was never officially charged with contributing to Clementi's death, the aggressive strategy of his prosecutors, who inflated a minor, nonviolent offense into a felony punishable by a 10-year prison term, suggests they were trying to hold him responsible for his roommate's decision to jump off the George Washington Bridge.

Ravi's apology highlights what seems to be the main reason he rejected a plea deal with terms similar to the punishment he received after his trial (except for the month in jail): He did not see himself as a bigot, and so he did not want to admit that he spied on Clementi with the intent of intimidating him because of his sexual orientation. During his trial, the prosecution presented very little evidence that Ravi—who, judging from his tweets and instant messages, rarely had an unexpressed thought—harbored any particular animus against Clementi or gay people in general. "I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi," Berman said last week. "He had no reason to." Berman emphasized that "Ravi was not convicted of a hate crime; he was convicted of a bias crime." This distinction is pretty hazy, not only because the terms are generally used interchangeably but because Ravi was convicted of deliberately trying to intimidate Clementi through his Twitter comments and of doing so because Clementi was gay. That theory did not make much sense, not only because the prosecution failed to show that Ravi was motivated by anti-gay bias but also because he sought to conceal his spying from Clementi and (foolishly) viewed his tweets as private chatter among friends. As far as Ravi was concerned, he was talking about Clementi behind his back; once he realized that Clementi had seen his tweets, Ravi apologized to him (albeit in a pretty disingenuous, half-assed fashion). The point is not that Ravi's behavior was admirable but that it did not suggest an effort to intimidate Clementi.

In fact, after distinguishing between "hate crime" and "bias crime," Berman suggested that the prosecution had applied New Jersey's law, which heretofore has been used only in cases involving violence or threats of violence, in a manner that was not intended by the legislature. Reinforcing that point, he did not give Ravi any jail time for the bias crime convictions, locking him up instead for his efforts to conceal his actions from police, which included deleting incriminating tweets and trying to influence a witness.

Although Ravi decided to serve his jail sentence rather than wait for the appeals to be resolved, his lawyers plan to challenge his convictions on several grounds. With respect to the initial spying (as opposed to the subsequent tweets), for example, the jurors found Ravi guilty of a bias crime based not on his intent to intimidate but based on their supposition that Clementi felt intimidated. While New Jersey's law allowed them to take that route, this definition of bias intimidation seems vulnerable to a due process challenge, since it means someone can be convicted of a crime he did not know he was committing.

More generally, Ravi argues that a law aimed at violent gay bashers has been misused to punish what Berman described as the "colossal insensitivity" of an immature 18-year-old. I tend to agree. But in making this argument, Ravi implicitly concedes the basic premise of New Jersey's statute: that the criminal law should be used to brand people as bigots and punish them for their benighted beliefs.

Previous coverage of the case here.