In San Francisco, the refuge of so many gay men and women who fled the bullying and torment of their youth, the case of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi has been particularly poignant.
In September 2010, Ravi and Clementi were beginning their lives as Rutgers University students, sharing a dormitory room together. Clementi was a shy, mostly closeted gay teenager. Ravi was a cocky frat boy in training. When he used a webcam to secretly film Clementi having sex with another man in their room, and then invited others to watch a later planned live stream, Clementi did nothing for 24 hours. Then he jumped off the George Washington Bridge and died in the Hudson River.
Last week, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman sentenced Ravi to 30 days in jail, along with three years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
This came as something of a shock since Ravi had been convicted of 15 crimes that carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, plus a recommendation that he be deported back to India.
But the justice system is adversarial by nature, and the hate crime laws under which Ravi was convicted were not drafted to address the complex stew of pettiness, immaturity and evasion that Ravi demonstrated. Ravi didn’t set out to beat or systematically humiliate Clementi. It seems clear that while he was cruel, he was casually cruel — not the sort of raging, abusive homophobe that such laws were designed to address.
The prosecutors offered Ravi a chance to plead to a lesser sentence, but couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t be deported at the end of his prison term. Ravi wouldn’t agree to this, so the prosecutors pursued the maximum possible case against him. That 10 years in prison would have been just as incorrect a sentence as the 30 days Ravi did receive.
Richard Pompelio, the pro-bono attorney who represented the man with whom Clementi was filmed, told The Record of Bergen County, N.J., that the sentence showed it was time to revisit the laws.
“When you look at a statute like this, the legislation is of such a nature that it makes it a serious crime that requires a prison term,” he told the newspaper. “If that’s not the case, let’s go back and amend the legislation. You can’t say, here’s the punishment but the judge is going to basically reduce it.”
There is a halfway point between the maximum the prosecutor sought and the light sentence Ravi received. In this case, it was up to the judge’s discretion to evaluate how heinous a crime like Ravi’s really was. But case-by-case sentencing should not become the norm for hate crime trials such as these.
The legislation currently on the books around the country is woefully out of date when it comes to the modern technologies that can be used to bully, intimidate and invade people’s private lives.
In the uncharted waters of hate crimes via technological means, this case shows that we must decide how heinous crimes such as this one are, and plot out a course to proper charging and sentencing guidelines.