The case of Rutgers College freshman Dharun Ravi, convicted last week of invasion of privacy and "bias intimidation" (a "hate crime") for spying on his gay roommate, has haunted me. If the roommate, Tyler Clementi hadn't jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge, we'd never have heard of any of this. But he did. Ravi wasn't charged with causing the suicide, but obviously that tragedy hung over the case.
What follows are some observations, but few conclusions. It's hard to see how any good comes of this.
- I'm instinctively respectful of the findings of juries. They heard it all; the rest of us just caught tidbits through the media. The jurors in this case shared their reasoning and should be listened to.
Whatever we may think of the verdict, we can't say the jurors didn't work at constructing a thoughtful understanding of the events.
- In general, I'm a supporter of hate crimes laws. I'm always aware that their application requires an underlying crime, something that would be illegal even if the target of the crime were not in need of protection from a history of bigotry. But it does seem that the way the New Jersey hate crimes enhancement worked in this case was based on asking the jurors to intuit how Clementi felt about Ravi spying on him. The verdicts do seem properly described by this summary from attorney Elie Mystal:
That is, the jurors were required by the way the case was framed to try to read the mind of someone who is dead. Now their conclusions may have been obvious -- and may have been correct -- but that seems a lot to ask and not, perhaps, a basis on which to deprive someone of freedom.
A local New Jersey newspaper sought the opinion of a "prominent defense lawyer."
I have to say I agree with that. The jurors concluded that Clementi was intimidated and/or humiliated because he was gay and therefore the invasion of privacy deserved the hate crime enhancement, even though what the evidence seems to show (via media accounts) is simply that Ravi was a garden variety jerk, not a dangerous intentional homophobe.
- Unhappily, the style in which Ravi was a jerk seems quintessentially heterosexual suburban American -- but the conviction makes it very likely this young twit will be deported because he is in the U.S. on a student visa. Deportation is the law if his felony conviction holds up. In a complex and sensitive article about the case in Colorlines, Rinku Sen reports the opinions of South Asian community activists who take a wide view of human rights.
That seems right to me.
Photo by way of John Munson/The Star-Ledger.