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Sentence in Webcam Spy Trial Sparks Debate Over Hate Crime Prosecutions

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Prosecutors made the rare move of appealing the judge’s sentence in the Rutgers webcam spy trial this week because they believe the 30-day jail term handed down to the former student convicted of invasion of privacy and a hate crime against his gay roommate is far too lenient.

Dharun Ravi, 20, was supposed to report to Middlesex County Adult Correction Center on May 31 — but he will have his sentence indefinitely delayed as the case continues to raise questions about whether the sentence is appropriate for a hate crime, or whether a hate crime should ever have been charged.

Ravi faced 10 years in prison on the bias intimidation charge — widely considered a hate crime — alone. He was convicted of 15 charges.

Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said his office didn't request the maximum length of incarceration because but it was "expected” his conviction on multiple offenses and covering up those crimes “would warrant more than a 30-day jail term."

But in sentencing Ravi to 30 days in jail, Supreme Court Judge Glenn Berman suggested New Jersey’s bias intimidation law was meant to apply to cases that involve violence or a threat of violence.

“I am not condoning what this gentleman did. I’m not defending it. I’m not minimizing it. But I think that’s what the legislature had in mind when they adopted this statute,” Berman said, indicating there was no threat of violence in the Ravi case.  

Ravi urged Twitter followers to watch his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, have sex with a man. Days later, Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

But some legal scholars who  believe in the use of hate crime laws disagree that the threat of violence is a necessary element to use the statutes.

Ari Waldman, who writes and teaches about sexual orientation and the law at Brooklyn Law School, advocates for a broad interpretation of hate crime laws.

He said it’s important to protect minorities from being targeted and victimized, and the statutes can’t foresee every possible crime in which that can happen.

He said he didn’t think the sentence was too lenient.

“This wasn’t what lawyers call jury nullification on the part of the judge,” he said. “The judge wasn’t rejecting the conviction.”

But James Jacobs, a law professor at NYU who has written a book critical of the way hate crime laws are used, believes the judge got the sentence right.

The 30-day sentence is appropriate for the invasion of privacy and hindering prosecution charges, Jacobs said. Had more time been added for the bias intimidation convictions, he said, it would be akin to making it a crime to inflict emotional distress.

“That would be a huge expansion of our use of the criminal law,” Jacobs said.

Hate crime statistics only specify whether the underlying crime is one against a person, property or society.  Jacobs believes the Ravi case may be the first in the country that involves invasion of privacy.

 Richard Kim, editor of The Nation magazine, told WNYC’s The Takeaway about his experience as a gay teenager, growing up in New Jersey, and being bullied. Kim agrees with the 30-day sentence, but he cautions against relying on the legal system to stop homophobia and gay teen suicide.

“I don’t think any individual case does that,” Kim said. “It’s going to be the actions of a lot parents, and a lot of neighbors, and a lot of friends and college administrators at schools to make that happen.”

During the sentencing hearing, Tyler’s mother, Jane Clementi, asked for prison time for Ravi, but also acknowledged that he was part of a larger problem and that none of his friends tried to stop him.

“How could they go along with such meanness? Why didn’t any one of them speak up and stop it?” Clementi asked, her voice quivering with rage.