Legal, gay observers split on 30-day jail sentence

Dharun Ravi turns to his mother, Sabitha Pazhani, as she cries while reading a statement during his sentencing. The former Rutgers student used his webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, who later committed suicide. The prosecution is planning an appeal. Ravi's lawyers say they may appeal, as well.
Dharun Ravi turns to his mother, Sabitha Pazhani, as she cries while reading a statement during his sentencing. The former Rutgers student used his webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, who later committed suicide. The prosecution is planning an appeal. Ravi's lawyers say they may appeal, as well. (MEL EVANS / AP)
Posted: May 23, 2012

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - An unexpectedly light 30-day jail sentence handed down Monday to Dharun Ravi, convicted in the Rutgers University webcam spying case, divided legal experts and gay activists and has the prosecution planning an appeal.

Ravi, 20, of Plainsboro, N.J., was found guilty by a Middlesex County jury in March of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, and hindering prosecution for using his laptop to secretly live-stream an intimate encounter between his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man two years ago.

The 18-year-old freshman committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, days after he became aware of the spying incident in his dorm room. Though Clementi's death was not mentioned in the charges against Ravi, the case focused worldwide attention on the issues of cyberbullying and problems faced by gay youth.

Ravi faced up to 10 years in state prison. Sentencing guidelines called for him to get more than a year, but his lawyer, Steven Altman, said that would have been a "serious injustice."

He should not "be held responsible for contributing to the death of Tyler," Altman said.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor said late Monday afternoon that he would appeal the sentence.

The prosecutor's office did not seek the maximum term, it said in a statement, but it had "expected that [Ravi's] conviction on multiple offenses of invading the privacy of two victims on two separate occasions, four counts of bias intimidation against Tyler Clementi, and the cover-up of those crimes, would warrant more than a 30-day jail term."

First Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure said before sentencing Monday that Ravi's crimes warranted a state prison sentence.

But before trial, the prosecutor had offered Ravi a plea bargain in which he would have received probation and no jail time in return for pleading guilty to a hate crime. Ravi's lawyer has said that his client could not stomach the thought of claiming an antigay prejudice he did not feel.

Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization, and the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, issued statements Monday arguing that the sentence would not be a sufficient deterrent to hate crimes. But some gay activists disagreed.

"Hate crimes are tricky," said Marc Poirier, a professor at the Seton Hall University School of Law, who has studied bias-intimidation laws. "If you don't define them narrowly, it looks like you are punishing people for what they say or what they thought."

In this case, said Poirier, who is openly gay, there was no violence or threat of violence against Clementi or his romantic partner. Poirier said he couldn't find another reported case that had treated invasion of privacy as a bias crime. Normally, he said, people think of hate crimes as assaults on gays or minorities, or cross-burnings.

A harsher sentence would have been inappropriate, he said.

Bill Dobbs, a New York gay activist and civil libertarian who has written about bias crimes, said he thought that the sentence was reasonable.

"Surprisingly, nationally known gay and lesbian voices were questioning how this case turned into something so big with so much prison time," he said on Monday.

Clementi's suicide "got everybody up in arms," but the tragedy had nothing to do with the case, said Dobbs, who attended much of the trial.

Ravi showed little emotion when state Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman handed down his sentence. Berman also ordered him to serve three years' probation, perform 300 hours of community service, receive mandatory counseling, and pay a $10,000 fee to be used to assist victims of bias crimes.

The probation officer who interviewed Ravi had recommended no jail time, based on his clean record and because he was unlikely to commit another crime, Berman said.

The judge said he would recommend that Ravi, who legally immigrated from India as a child, not be deported. But before he announced his decision, he lectured Ravi.

"I haven't heard you apologize once," the judge said, calling Ravi's plan to spy on Clementi "cold, calculated, and methodically conceived."

Berman pointed out the pain that Ravi caused his victims - including the Clementis and his own family - and that he had tried to cover up his crime by altering Twitter messages, deleting 86 text messages, and attempting to influence testimony by a witness who also viewed Clementi kissing a man in his dorm room through Ravi's webcam.

That witness, Molly Wei, another former Rutgers student who briefly viewed the webstream with Ravi, testified for the prosecution during trial. In return, she was sentenced to 300 hours of community service and three years in a pretrial intervention program, which calls for supervision and no criminal record. The judge said Monday that he would recommend suspending the rest of Wei's time in the program because she had already performed most of her community service.

During the four-hour sentencing hearing, Clementi's mother, Jane, tearfully asked the judge for justice.

"I am asking the court to do the right thing. The whole country is watching. This . . . should not be tolerated," she said. The Clementis said Ravi should serve time, though not the maximum sentence.

Ravi's mother, Sabitha Pazhani, asked for mercy, sobbing as she described how her son had endured unfair attacks on his character.

"He was absolutely broken in pieces," she said. At this, Ravi began to weep, the first time all morning he had showed emotion.

The families hastily exited the courthouse without comment. Ravi's lawyers have said that they may appeal the conviction, which they have said was in error.

Garden State Equality reacted swiftly. "We opposed throwing the book at Dharun Ravi. We have spoken out against giving him the maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and against deporting him. That would have been vengeance beyond punishment and beyond sending a message to the rest of society," the group's chairman, Steven Goldstein, said in a statement.

"But we have similarly rejected the other extreme that Ravi should have gotten no jail time at all, and today's sentencing is closer to that extreme than the other. This was not merely a childhood prank gone awry," the statement read.

Etzion Neuer, acting director of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, called the sentence "light."

"One wonders whether 30 days sends an appropriate message of the severity of the incident," Neuer said, saying the trial showed that Ravi had antigay bias and that his insensitivity led to tragedy.

In its verdict, the jury found that in some instances Ravi's intentions were not out of hatred or bias, but that Clementi had perceived them as such.

Neuer said the judge did the right thing by ordering community service and counseling.

"Problems of prejudice are best addressed through education, and not through the criminalization of bullying," he said.


Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com .

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