John O'boyle / AP
Dharun Ravi listens to testimony during Ravi's trial at the Middlesex County Courthouse in New Brunswick, N.J. on Monday.
Dharun Ravi could face a decade in prison over charges that he used a web camera to spy on the romantic encounters of his gay roommate, who later took his life. As jurors mull his fate, experts disagree over whether he should be convicted of the most serious charge: bias intimidation.
Ravi’s roommate and fellow first-year student at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010. Authorities say that was three days after Ravi watched Clementi kiss another man via a web camera and one day after Ravi tried to do it again.
Closing arguments wrapped up Tuesday in a New Jersey courtroom where Ravi faces 15 criminal charges, including invasion of privacy. The jury would need to find him guilty of that in order to convict him of bias intimidation.
“Invasion of privacy is a very odd crime for bias intimidation or hate crimes. It’s usually something violent – baseball bat, swastikas, cross burning,” said Marc Poirer, an openly gay professor of law and sexuality at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey. “Maybe it’s new territory, lots of things involving computers are.”
The presiding judge in the case has expressed some skepticism about the bias intimidation law, The Associated Press reported.
"I could be wrong," Judge Glenn Berman told lawyers on Monday after the jury left. "I said this statute to me is muddled. It could be written better."
The bias crime law has been on the books since 2002, replacing an earlier version of the state’s hate crimes legislation. It has seemingly never been applied in a case where the underlying charge is invasion of privacy – or such cases haven’t been publicized, experts said.
The law’s author, state Sen. Joe Vitale, said he felt the legislation’s intent was clear and was applied correctly in this case.
AFP - Getty Images
This undated photograph shows Tyler Clementi in one of his Facebook profile pictures.
“We didn’t spell out under what circumstances a bias crime would be applied to sexual orientation, whether as a violent crime or a crime of intimidation. It’s really … a bias intimidation law,” he said, adding that it was akin to domestic violence, which can occur as emotional abuse rather than physical harm.
"Domestic violence takes on many shapes and forms as does … a bias crime against someone because of their sexual orientation,” he added.
And though the law apparently hadn’t been used this way before, he said he thought it was “probably the blueprint for a case like this.”
The jury heard from about 30 witnesses over less than two weeks of testimony. Ravi did not testify, but jurors saw a video of a statement he gave to police.
The defense said Ravi was immature but not homophobic, while the prosecution said he intended to intimidate Clementi and the man who visited his room – known by the initials M.B. – because they were gay.
For a bias intimidation conviction – which carries a 10-year sentence – the jury has to unanimously agree that one of three criteria has been met: There’s evidence that the victim felt he was being intimidated or evidence that the defendant purposely or knowingly attempted to intimidate based on biased motivations.
Louis Raveson, a law professor of criminal and civil trial litigation at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, said he thought all of the bias intimidation criteria had been met, citing M.B.’s testimony that he felt intimidated, and Tyler’s request to change rooms, which was followed by his suicide. He also said he believed from watching the testimony that Ravi wouldn’t have treated heterosexuals the same way as he did the gay pair.
“I think the statute correctly predicted this kind of crime and … is being used appropriately,” he said. But he surmised that if Ravi is convicted, the defense would try to appeal based on the “victim” aspect of the bias criteria.
“This is an effort to say this is a serious crime, it inflicts serious harm, it’s intolerable … and I think that’s great,” he later added. “A prosecution like this spreads the word that it’s not fooling around; it’s not immature jokes by young people. It’s real damage, and the damage can be great, as it was with Tyler, and we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”
But Poirer thought the case was “really a stretch … I’m not sure the state thought very hard about it. I also think the evidence is pretty weak on bias intimidation.”
Though the suicide was technically not part of the case, it loomed over the proceedings, he said.
“I think there was clearly political pressure by one segment of the gay community … to make Ravi an example because there have been and continue to be gay suicides and there continue to be examples of bullying,” he said.
But a bias intimidation conviction “won’t do anybody any good,” he added.
“I think that people who want to police odious behavior will be encouraged, even when it’s not appropriate to criminalize it, and I think there will be a backlash in terms of people who blame the gay community for being motivated by vengeance rather than justice.”
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