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Reaction to Rutgers gay-spying case: From 'vengeance' to 'precedent-setting'

Former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi has been convicted of a hate crime and invasion of privacy in a case involving his use of a webcam to spy on his college roommate kissing another man; his roommate, Tyler Clementi, later committed suicide. Msnbc's Thomas Roberts discusses the verdict with NBC's Mara Schiavocampo and attorney Matt Semino.


Some experts called Friday’s guilty verdict against a former Rutgers student who spied on his gay roommate's romantic encounters “precedent setting” in the battle against bullying, but others decried it as entering the “realm of vengeance.”

Dharun Ravi, 20, was facing 15 counts, including bias intimidation -- the state's nomenclature for a hate crime -- and invasion of privacy. Fellow New Jersey residents found him guilty on most parts of the 15 counts. He faces as much as 10 years imprisonment at his sentencing in May.

Ravi’s roommate and fellow first-year student at Rutgers, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, three days after Ravi watched Clementi kiss another man via a web camera and one day after Ravi tried to do it again, an event he invited fellow students to watch.

Prosecutors pursued New Jersey’s hate crimes’ statute in the case, which attracted national interest and triggered debate over such laws. The bias crime law, on the books since 2002, 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.

Former Rutgers student guilty in webcam spying case

“There’s no winner here,” said Bill Dobbs, a longtime gay activist and civil libertarian. “There’s a young gay man dead and another one whose life is wrecked to a considerable degree. This case had an overzealous prosecutor … who was pushed by gay organizations that have lost sight of justice.

“The suicide cast a long shadow into that court room and really got the book thrown at Dharun Ravi,” Dobbs added, noting he didn’t think there would have been a criminal case without Clementi’s death. “This is well beyond looking for justice and into the realm of vengeance considering the number of charges against Ravi and the seriousness of them. As hate crimes prosecution mount, the flaws of such laws become apparent.”

The jury had to find the India-born Ravi, who could face deportation after serving his sentence, guilty of invasion of privacy -- known as the underlying charge -- to then convict him of bias intimidation. The use of that charge was deemed atypical in such cases, with some law professors divided on its use.

Louis Raveson, a law professor of criminal and civil trial litigation at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, thought the prosecution made its case and that the bias intimidation charge was used appropriately. 

“There was a fair amount of evidence that Ravi did harbor a bias towards gay males and that he thought it was funny to expose Tyler because of his relationship with another man. … It may not have been overwhelming evidence but it was certainly sufficient for the jury to find that Ravi was guilty,” he said.

Groundwork for future cases
Raveson also thought the decision could lay the groundwork for similar cases nationally.

“It will be an important precedent throughout the country because it is recognizing the kind of bullying that’s gone on for decades and decades isn’t just boyish pranks but rather they’re serious crimes,” he said, adding: “Access to social media exacerbates the seriousness of invasion of privacy because instead of one person telling his friend about it, and it dying, instead it goes on the Internet where … potentially thousands of people can see it, and the kind of trauma that that can cause to a victim is enormous.”

Former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz, now a partner at New Jersey law firm McCarter & English agreed that the case highlighted the role of modern communications in such cases. “This verdict should serve as a cautionary tale as to the serious consequences of reckless behavior in the age of technology,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Marc Poirer, an openly gay professor of law and sexuality at Seton Hall University School of Law in New Jersey, said he was concerned about the verdict, saying it was not a typical bias crime.

“I think that the law didn’t fit very well,” he said, calling Ravi’s actions those of a “dumb 18-year-old” that “went wrong.”

“I think if Clementi had not committed suicide, none of this would have surfaced in this way,” he added. “I don’t want to say it’s a miscarriage of justice. I would say it’s a misapplication of principles that would be better served -- especially if we’re just figuring out how to do this -- with a clearer case.”

'Worries me'
Poirer also was concerned about part of the bias law that allows jurors to find guilt on victim intimidation without the perpetrator having intent to actually do that; instead, it’s based on the way the victim felt. The jurors did convict in this way, though they also did find Ravi guilty in some instances of “knowing” or acting with “the purpose to intimidate.” (Verdict breakdown: http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/03/ravi_webcam_trial_verdict.html)

This “is subject to a very … widespread kind of application, so that worries me a good deal,” he added.

Meanwhile, a civil rights group, Garden State Equality, hailed the decision.

“This verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” chairman Steven Goldstein wrote in a statement posted to their website. (http://www.gardenstateequality.org/)

“Though Tyler Clementi has left us, the rest of Dharun Ravi’s life will help tell his life story. Ravi’s own lawyer basically portrayed him as a young man who engaged in jerky, insensitive behavior. Ravi can stay that course, or he can (do) some good with his life by making amends and fighting for the justice and dignity of every individual, including people who are LGBT. That much is up to Ravi.”

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