Man Convicted of Anti-Gay Hate Crime, Despite Lack of Evidence He Was Anti-Gay
There’s a common phrase that folks use when a trial results in a dismissal they don’t agree with – “got off on a technicality.” A lot of people apparently think there’s a good chance that criminal defendants who are guilty may be acquitted due to some sleazy lawyering. Given the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, it’s obviously not true that dangerous individuals are often set free based on technicalities, but I suppose no one would elect politicians if they told us how safe we all are.
Given the power that police and prosecutors have, combined with the general disposition of Americans to be tough on crime, I would suggest that it’s much more likely for individuals to be convicted on technicalities. For example, last week one Dharun Ravi was convicted of hate crimes related to using a webcam to observe his gay college roommate making out with another man. Considering the evidence that Mr. Ravi harbored anti-gay animus is pretty thin, one can make a strong case that he was convicted on a technicality. And that’s what I’m going to try and do. Well, I bet I can make an above average case, anyway…
The story so far…
Here’s a handy summary of Ravi’s case, courtesy of the NYT:
A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday on all 15 charges he had faced for using a webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man, a verdict poised to broaden the definition of hate crimes in an era when laws have not kept up with evolving technology. […]
The student, Dharun Ravi, had sent out Twitter and text messages encouraging others to watch. His roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge three days after the webcam viewing, three weeks into their freshman year in September 2010. […]
Mr. Ravi, 20, wearing a dark suit over his slight frame, sat expressionless as the jury forewoman read the verdict on the first count, of invasion of privacy. But he seemed surprised when she pronounced him guilty on the next charge, of bias intimidation. His eyes popped and he quickly turned his head from the jury. As he left the courtroom in a swarm of television cameras, his mother clutching his arm, he looked straight ahead and said nothing.
The jury also found him guilty of lying to investigators, trying to influence a witness and tampering with evidence after he tried to cover up Twitter and text messages inviting others to join in the viewing.
Some of the charges carry penalties of 5 to 10 years in prison. Mr. Ravi has surrendered his passport; prosecutors said he could face possible deportation to his native India, but that decision would be left to immigration officials.
I think it’s safe to assume there would have been no prosecution if not for Clementi’s unfortunate suicide. In fact, it appears that Ravi was found guilty of these other crimes (“bias intimidation”?) as a way of holding him accountable for Clementi’s death.
Obviously, none of us – least of all Ravi’s jury – can really know what was in Clementi’s mind when he killed himself. But that doesn’t mean a helluva lot of people are assuming that he killed himself because Ravi bullied him via webcam. Indeed, for many Clementi’s death is proof of Ravi’s homophobia. Here’s a blog post in the NYT about how the Ravi case raises the issue of homophobia in Indian culture. Here’s an essay at CNN about how Ravi’s conviction won’t stop anti-gay bullying. Here’s an article at the Huffington Post asserting that Ravi refused to plea bargain because he and his lawyers “put faith in what they thought was a homophobic judicial system, one that would slough off hate crimes against gays.”
Most heartbreaking of all, after the conviction Clementi’s father read a statement that contained a message to young kids, which said in part, “You’re going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean you have to work against them.”
But just because Clementi was gay and he killed himself doesn’t mean Ravi is homophobic, or that Ravi’s actions drove Clementi to suicide. Many people are bullied for a variety of reasons and don’t kill themselves. Many people are targets of bigotry and don’t kill themselves. And yet all these folks are under the impression that Ravi’s webcam is the primary reason that Clementi committed suicide. To believe that, you would have know what was in Clementi’s mind at the time of his death – and moreover, that Ravi’s spying was a reasonable basis for Clementi to feel intimidated.
Those are some pretty big assumptions. In the NYT story, one of the jurors is quoted as saying that convicting Ravi of bias intimidation “was the hardest because you really can’t get into someone’s head.” But he eventually voted to convict anyway. Maybe he thought he had to because Clementi was dead? Maybe he thought he had to send a message about hate crimes? That’s just speculation on my part, but apparently this juror voted to convict Ravi based on speculation.
The NYT goes on to describe how the judge had to explain the hate crime definition at length to the jury, and that Ravi would be guilty if Clementi “reasonably believed” he had been targeted for being gay – again, something that none of us could possibly know. Ravi has argued that the reason he was spying on Clementi because he was concerned that Clementi’s paramour might have tried to steal Ravi’s things. That may or may not be true, but it’s at least a plausible explanation that undercuts what Clementi might have reasonably believed.
In this ABC News story, another juror says that the jury did not think Ravi intended to intimidate Clementi, but his actions made Clementi feel intimidated. The juror also says, “In my opinion I didn’t think it was a hate crime until we were presented with an indictment (that explained the law).” Well, if the law is overly broad, it might criminalize behavior that most people wouldn’t think is a crime. And if the ABC News story is accurate, the New Jersey hate crime law is overly broad:
Ravi was found not guilty of some subparts of the 15 counts of bias intimidation, attempted invasion of privacy, and attempted bias intimidation, but needed only to be found guilty of one part of each count to be convicted.
ABC News’ Chris Cuomo, who has been following the case closely, said the counts and subcounts were a tactical move by the prosecution to build a stronger case against Ravi.
“It was a complicated verdict, but it was good tactic by the prosecution to build as strong a case as they could. This jury convicted Dharun Ravi of everything it reasonably could have,” he said.
They certainly did, although I don’t know if I would describe the prosecution’s tactic as “good.” When the prosecutors are throwing up a bunch of charges just to make sure that some of them stick, it certainly seems like a person could get convicted on a technicality.
This CBS News story says that one of the alternate jurors in the case would not have voted to convict since there wasn’t any actual evidence that Ravi was anti-gay. He says, “I think that scenario could have happened 100 different ways, whether he had a straight roommate who had a girlfriend over … there are 100 scenarios where he could have been goofing around and turning the camera on and it had nothing to do with somebody being gay.”
Futhermore, once Clementi had found out Ravi spied on him and requested a room change, Ravi wrote him a text message apology that said in part, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship… You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.” One may doubt Ravi’s sincerity, but the fact he would offer even an insincere apology certainly doesn’t prove he’s a homophobe.
All these reports seem to indicate that there is little if any conclusive evidence that Ravi’s webcam spying was intended to be anti-gay bullying. At worst, what Ravi did was immature and insensitive, which are fairly common attributes of 18-year-old college freshmen. Even if we think he was a jerk, we can’t know for sure that he is a homophobic jerk.
The jury seems to have had its doubts about Ravi’s intent and Clementi’s state of mind, but convicted anyway. Ravi’s conviction appears to be the sum of an expansive hate crime statute, plus the nagging desire to hold someone accountable for a tragic death, plus the need to do the right thing even though “you really can’t get into someone’s head.” It adds up to conviction on a technicality. In the end, Ravi might have been better off accepting a plea bargain than putting his faith in the criminal justice system. What a world.