Today’s verdict in the Rutgers webcam case—which for lack of a better term I’ll call “mostly guilty”—was almost exactly right, and more than a little confusing.
In large part, the jury reached exactly the result I proposed last week: Dharun Ravi is guilty of invasion of privacy for using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, having a sexual encounter with another man, and for attempting to do so a second time. Ravi is also guilty of most—but not all—of the counts of “bias intimidation,” a hate crime. But as to whether Ravi did what he did intentionally to harass Clementi for being gay, the jury rendered a split decision. The first time, they said he didn’t. The second time, which Ravi preceded with a viewing invitation to his friends on Twitter, they said he did.
Based on the evidence we have, the verdict seems like the right result. To have let Ravi off the hook would have been a disaster; it would send the message to bullies across the country that they can pick on gay people and get away with it. And yet, as I wrote earlier, the negative opinions Ravi has (or had) about gay people are not extreme, and no different from those held by millions of Americans, perhaps even most Americans. Dharun Ravi targeted Tyler Clementi not because he’s a bigot, but because he’s a jerk.
Unfortunately for Ravi, New Jersey has a very strict hate-crimes law. If Clementi felt targeted because he was gay, Ravi is guilty of a hate crime. (What Clementi actually felt, of course, can only be inferred now, since he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge shortly after he discovered what Ravi had done.)
New Jersey’s law is different from the federal law, and the laws in most states. So even for the first incident, Ravi is still guilty, and for the second one, he’s doubly so. That means that, despite the somewhat split verdict, Ravi’s fate is now up to the judge, who has the discretion to throw the book at him (10 years in prison, likely deportation) or give him a strong slap on the wrist.
Ravi is not just a symbol; he’s also a 20-year-old kid.
I’ve been a gay-rights activist for a decade, and a lot of my work is devoted to uprooting the causes of homophobia, particularly within religion. Still, I hope the judge chooses the second path. I am glad that Ravi has been found guilty, because the verdict sends a crucial symbolic message. But Ravi is not just a symbol; he’s also a 20-year-old kid. It’s not fair to scapegoat him for holding views more mild than what, say, Rick Santorum says on a daily basis. True, Santorum doesn’t turn his webcam on unsuspecting roommates—but in terms of “bias intimidation,” he’s a lot more extreme, and a lot more harmful, than Dharun Ravi.
The good news is that the “mostly guilty” verdict means that the judge has latitude in considering a sentence. Here’s hoping he balances our collective need for justice with mercy for the individual whose life still hangs in the balance.