Nancy Solomon, Managing Editor, New Jersey Public Radio
Nancy Solomon is the Managing Editor of New Jersey Public Radio.
The trial of Dharun Ravi and why he used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate has generated headlines and raised questions about the line between obnoxiousness and criminal behavior. It’s also brought to the forefront the issue of hate crime statues, and whether they are an effective way to protect minorities.
The prosecutor argues that Ravi invaded Tyler Clementi’s privacy and he did it for a reason: Ravi didn’t want a gay roommate. He targeted Clementi and intended to intimidate him.
The defense argues Ravi was an 18-year-old kid who did something stupid — but not criminal.
“Boys will be boys is the answer we’ve heard for a very long time,” said Hayley Gorenberg, an attorney with Lambda Legal, a national organization that works for gay rights. She believes hate crime laws are needed, because otherwise, bullying, intimidation and even violence against sexual minorities will continue.
“All of this activity is important because it says we’re really examining the question and we’re really coming to grips with what’s going on with youth, with losing too many young people to suicide, losing too many to violence perpetrated against them by others,” Gorenberg said. “And it’s all part of a big picture we’ve got to confront.”
In the Rutgers case, Ravi is charged with bias intimidation, New Jersey’s hate crime statute and invasion of privacy. To convict Ravi the jury must find that he invaded Clementi’s privacy and that he did this to intimidate Clementi because of Clementi’s sexual orientation..
The invasion of privacy charge carries a five-year sentence. A hate crime conviction adds on another five years.
But critics think these statutes are unnecessary — whether they’re for a minor crime or something horrifically violent. The last thing the country needs, according to NYU Law Professor James Jacobs, is longer sentences.
“I don’t think anywhere in American criminal law or sentencing law do we have a problem of inadequate punishment,” Jacobs said. “Our biggest problem seems to be in reducing punishment after we use it, figuring out how we get people out of prison and reducing prison crowding.”
Jacobs wrote “Hate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics,” which is critical of all hate crime legislation. He objects to the idea that sentencing should be determined by the identity of the victim.
The statutes were initially proposed because communities feared neo-Nazi organizations were on the rise and targeting minorities, Jacobs explained. But the majority of prosecutions, he said, are of individuals whose misdeeds can be punished with existing laws.
“People act stupidly, prejudices come out, words are spoken, deeds are done,” Jacobs said. “It looks more like Archie Bunker than it does like the head of the neo-Nazi party Tom Metzger.”
Following Clementi’s suicide, Rutgers sociology professor Karen Cerulo held discussions with students and wrote a guide on what to do if a student is seeking help.
Cerulo heard arguments pro and con on campus about whether Ravi should be tried for a hate crime. She said most faculty and students think the serious charge sends an important message.
“That you can not target people because of their sexual orientation and you can not target them because of their race or their gender,” Cerulo said. “The only way this kind of thing will stop is for some punishment, some very public punishment of people who use someone’s status or someone’s identity as a reason to target them.”
The jury has already shown some confusion about the bias intimidation charge. After only 45 minutes of deliberation on Wednesday, they sent a note to the judge asking him to define the words “intimidation” and “purpose” in the indictment.
The jury may be convinced Clementi felt humiliated or shamed by the webcam spying. And that caused him to kill himself. But to find Ravi guilty of the hate crime, they must believe he caused Clementi to be intimidated – and that’s likely to be the most difficult determination the jury will have to make.