Monday, March 26, 2012

Nothing to be happy about in this

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.

    The bias intimidation charges were the most difficult to agree upon, jurors said. And what tipped the scales there, they said, was that Mr. Ravi had discussed spying on Mr. Clementi not just once, but repeatedly, even inviting his online friends to watch Mr. Clementi and the other man in a second encounter.

    That, said Ms. Audet, is what elevated the case from one of teenagers behaving cruelly and insensitively to a crime.

    “To attempt a second time, is what changed my mind,” she said. “A reasonable person would have closed it and ended it there, not tweeted about it.”

    The webcam did not work for the second encounter; Mr. Ravi, 20, claimed that he had turned it off. But Ms. Audet said evidence suggested that he was lying. “He was at ultimate Frisbee practice,” she said, and evidence showed he then went to a dining hall. “We came to the conclusion that it was Tyler who turned off the computer to make sure he wasn’t filmed a second time.”

    She added, “That hit home big.”

    … Mr. Ravi’s lawyer pointed to apologetic texts that Mr. Ravi sent Mr. Clementi, in which he said he had no problem with homosexuality and even had a close friend who was gay. (At almost the exact moment he sent the apology, Mr. Clementi, 18, committed suicide after posting on Facebook, “jumping off the gw bridge sorry”).

    Mr. Leverett, a student and Twitter user himself, was unmoved. “I can’t speak for everyone on the jury, but me, personally, I believe it was something where he realized what he did was wrong, and it was just too late to amend for what he did.”

    Of the apology, Ms. Audet said: “My first impression was to believe what he said. Then, as we started reading stuff, we found things in there that I interpreted more as covering.

    “The friend he claimed was a good friend in high school, that person was never presented as a defense witness. If that person had come forward and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been good friends, and he knows I’m gay and he doesn’t have a problem with it,’ that might have swayed me in the other direction.”

    New York Times, March 17, 2012

    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:

    ... the jury believed that Ravi did not invade Clementi’s privacy for the purpose of intimidating Clementi over his sexual orientation. But they thought that Ravi should have known that Clementi would feel intimidated, and that Clementi believed he was intimidated, and so Ravi is guilty and going to jail.

    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."

    Lawrence Lustberg said that subsection bases guilt "on the state of mind of the victim as opposed to the state of mind of the defendant."

    In most criminal statutes, the intent of the perpetrator is a key element in there being a crime. Predicting a hard-fought appeal, Lustberg said the argument would be that "it is unprecedented for a conviction to be based on the state of mind of the victim."

    "It is very worrisome to me that a defendant could be subjected to these very severe penalties based upon the state of mind of someone other than himself," Lustberg said before the verdict.

    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.

    Deepa Iyer, the director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, supported federal hate crimes legislation as well as related state and local laws, but says the consequences have to be proportionate to the act. Iyer notes that the automatic deportation of people with convictions amounts to double punishment.

    “When these incidents occur, it’s not just the individual that’s being assaulted, bullied or murdered, it’s the entire community that’s being victimized,” said Iyer. “At the same time, when it comes around to the court system, especially around sentencing, these cases and alleged perpetrators need to be assessed for whether the punishment fits the crime.” Deportation after a jail sentence -- essentially exile for someone like Ravi, who was born in India but raised in the U.S. -- constitutes double punishment in Iyer’s mind.

    That seems right to me.
Meanwhile Tyler Clementi is still dead and coming out is still fraught with anxiety and sometimes rejection for young people. Nothing to cheer about here.

Photo by way of John Munson/The Star-Ledger.


Rain Trueax said...

I feel the same way about this. We don't even know for sure that the defendant didn't do it because he himself is gay and not admitting it. His 'joking' about it doesn't tell a person anything. It is voyeurism in that case. We also don't know if the boy who killed himself did it because he didn't feel he could face who he was which comes back to society's sickness to not recognize this is natural. Just a sad case. One last thing, having been on a felony jury last summer, juries don't get all they might wish they could. A grand jury, which in Oregon at least, is also made up of the same type of jurors, can at least question themselves and ask the questions they might wish to know. In all cases though juries only get what prosecutors and defense lawyers give them. Sometimes it's not enough/

Rain Trueax said...

To add to this, I consider people who watch such stuff guilty also as they are adding on. Years ago I was in a chat room and chatting with someone privately. They told me one of the married couples had put on a webcam and people could watch them have sex. I said no thanks. I felt it was a kind of sickness to do that and equal to want to watch it. That marriage later went to a divorce which I don't know why but feel it was wrong to see it even when both people voluntarily chose to exploit themselves.