It was perhaps the most brutal example of a private moment gone public. A shy 18-year-old, an accomplished violinist, learns a month into the school year that his college roommate has been spying, via a computer webcam, on his sexual relations with another young man. This student is not openly gay, nor does he know how many of his peers have viewed the recording. So it’s easy to imagine that Tyler Clementi was assuming the worst when, two days later, on September 21, the Rutgers freshman jumped 202 feet to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
Clementi’s death set off an immediate firestorm. Gay rights groups, devastated by the latest in a string of recent teen suicides, called for his roommate, Dharun Ravi—along with Ravi's alleged accomplice, Molly Wei—to be charged with hate crimes. Schools and law enforcement agencies began tearing through legislation to prevent bullying in the future. “ Bullied to Death,” quickly becoming the year's most-discussed social crisis, was the talk of cable news shows all over the country.
On Wednesday, the case made headlines yet again when a Middlesex, New Jersey grand jury issued a 15-count indictment against Ravi, adding bias intimidation to the previous charges of privacy invasion—essentially, alleging that Ravi’s act rises to the level of hate crime because Clementi was gay. "The criminal case is about the line between acceptable conduct and unacceptable conduct... particularly in this era of electronic media," the attorney for the family of Clementi told Reuters. (Neither he nor Ravi’s attorney returned request for comment.) In order to prove the claim in court, prosecutors will have to show that Ravi’s motivation for the act was spurred by Clementi’s sexual orientation, and was not simply a nasty college prank gone terribly wrong. If convicted, the 19-year-old could face up to 10 years in prison.
Experts say the case has entered new legal territory—a hate crime charge for what has become, rationally or not, every parent’s worst fear: cyberbullying. New Jersey passed one of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the nation in the months following Clementi’s death, and 45 states now have such policies on their books. We now know that 1 in 5 students is harassed each year, along with a shocking 9 in 10 gay teens, according to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network. Kids who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed, and nearly 160,000 of them skip school each day, fearful of their peers. The problem is epidemic.
But as painful as Clementi's story is to hear about—and as much as the indictment has been applauded by some activists—there are legal experts who question whether the punishment fits the crime. Today’s world of cyberbullying is no doubt more potent than the bullying of yore. With smart phones and social media following kids wherever they go, the end of the school day no longer marks a reprieve from the taunts and torment bullies dole out. But most cases of this kind are infinitely more complicated than the public discourse makes them out to be. “People are thirsty for these quick fixes,” says Samuel Goldberg, a former New York prosecutor and legal analyst. “It was a horrible thing that happened, there’s no question. But I think people’s knee-jerk reaction is to simply throw the book at these kids.”
"Pursuit of such charges is, in my opinion, incredibly overzealous.”
Which brings us to the story of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who brought bullying into the national spotlight early last year. Prince killed herself in January 2010, after suffering months of alleged verbal torment by her high school peers. Five of those former peers, all minors, have been indicted on felony charges that range from stalking and harassment to violation of civil rights; like Ravi, they face up to 10 years in prison. A sixth defendant, now 19, faces charges of statutory rape related to consensual sex with Prince when he was a senior. Each of these students was forced to drop out of school, many put off hopes of graduation, and one lost a football scholarship to college.
The public was quick to indict on their own in Prince’s case, long before the facts were in. As more details emerged, however, we learned that Prince had tried to kill herself before, was on medication for depression, and was struggling with her parents’ separation. As Goldberg put it at the time, “What happened until innocent until proven guilty? It's politically incorrect to even suggest that. These cases are very high-profile, but very few people know all the facts involved.”
Prince and Clementi’s cases have brought long-overdue attention to the bullying issue. But they have also shown that efforts to solve bullying problems through crusading prosecution can do more harm than good. Ravi and Wei were both over 18 when their crime was committed, but they were still teens. There is longstanding research to show that law is not a deterrent to young people, who often respond emotionally to their surroundings. Ultimately, labeling teens "criminals," say criminologists, will only make it harder for them to engage with society when they return. “I understand the prosecutor wants to send a clear message, and that this case has and will continue to receive the national spotlight,” says Sameer Hinduja, a criminologist at Florida Atlantic University and the codirector of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “But pursuit of such charges is, in my opinion, incredibly overzealous.”
Under the glare of a national spotlight, nobody would dare argue that Ravi’s crime go unpunished. But there are certainly details that have yet to make their way into the public eye. For one: Ravi’s attorney’s insistence that the images of Clementi—while widely reported to have been “live-streamed”—were never in fact transmitted beyond a single computer belonging to Ravi’s alleged accomplice.
Whatever the outcome, Ravi's and Wei's punishments will rightly continue. “They’re going to have to cope with the proverbial blood on their hands for the rest of their lives,” says Hinduja. Whether that's good enough will be decided in court.
Jessica Bennett is a Newsweek senior writer covering society, youth culture and gender. Her special reports, multimedia packages and original Web video have been honored by the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York and GLAAD, among other organizations. Follow her on Twitter.