Dharun Ravi shook his head as the jury read the mixed verdict. The 20-year-old former Rutgers student on Friday was found guilty of invasion of privacy and anti-gay intimidation in the high-profile webcam spying case that began when Tyler Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
The trial wasn’t about whether or not Ravi directly caused Clementi’s death by turning on his webcam to allow a half-dozen students to watch his roommate kissing another man. In fact, “prosecutors were not allowed to argue directly that the spying led to his death; defense lawyers were barred from saying there were other reasons he killed himself,” the Associated Press reported.
This wasn’t about some degree of murder or manslaughter. This trial had more to do with anti-gay bullying and the sad string of gay teen suicides that became a media trend story in the fall of 2010.
But while Clementi’s death was indeed tragic, premature and heartbreaking, is the criminal justice system really going to hold Ravi accountable to the tune of 10 years in prison and the threat of deportation from the country in which he’s lived since he was a little boy? Was what he did that bad?
Out of 30 witnesses in the case, several students testified that Ravi had never said anything disparaging about gay people or Clementi, though some did say he expressed concern about living with a gay roommate. But was there evidence of a hate crime here? Was there evidence of serious malicious intent?
Let’s be clear: Anti-gay bullying is a serious nightmare for teens all across the country that deserves national attention. But let’s be realistic: Is Ravi facing 10 years in prison and deportation for essentially being an immature dick who thought it was funny his roommate was necking with a “sketchy” older dude?
It’s never, ever permissible to blame the victim. But in this case, Tyler Clementi’s death, no matter how messed up Ravi’s indefensible actions were, was ultimately caused by Tyler Clementi. He could have talked it out with a therapist or resident adviser. He could have squashed the beef directly with Ravi. He could have transferred to another room or dorm or college. He could have sought support from like-minded folks on the Internet. He never should have had to do those things. But what happened happened. The next step was a reasonable solution. The decision for which he opted was sad, and yes, tragic, but while Ravi may have contributed to Clementi’s confusion, and possibly self-loathing, only Clementi could make the decision to leap to his untimely death.
The jury found that Ravi invaded Clementi’s privacy with the intent to intimidate his roommate because he was gay. Maybe that’s true. And maybe it’s true that Ravi was simply engaging in amateur-hour behavior that was cruel and mean-spirited. But is justice really being served here? Are Clementi’s parents, and his gay brother who wrote a touching letter to the departed Tyler, getting actual justice from this conviction?
Hate crimes are a daily occurrence. They are frightening. They are embarrassingly ignorant. They are shameful. But hate-crime and bias convictions should be reserved for real criminals, not handed down to idiotic roommates who are too juvenile to realize their college pranks take an emotional toll.
Nothing can excuse Ravi’s behavior. He deserved expulsion. He deserves ridicule. He deserves to have this on his conscience forever. But does he deserve a lengthy prison sentence? You tell me.
Weigh in below with your thoughts on this conviction. We’d love to hear from you.
Slade Sohmer is co-founder and editor-in-chief of HyperVocal. Tweet him at @hypervocal.
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