Riordan: Rutgers cyberspy case ends with a fair sentence, but no end to tragedy

Dharun Ravi (left) and his attorney Steve Altman listen as prosecutor Julia McClure, reacts to Ravi’s 30-day sentence. MEL EVANS / AP
Dharun Ravi (left) and his attorney Steve Altman listen as prosecutor Julia McClure, reacts to Ravi’s 30-day sentence. MEL EVANS / AP
Posted: May 23, 2012

The world finally got to see Dharun Ravi cry, and if his tears didn’t demonstrate the remorse he has so famously failed to express publicly, they at least looked genuine.

The seemingly unflappable Ultimate Frisbee ace barely batted an eyelash Monday when others in the Middlesex County courtroom described his actions as “evil” and so lacking in humanity as to verge on monstrous.

But when his mother, Sabitha Pazhani, began sobbing just a seat away, Ravi’s enormous brown eyes filled up, then spilled. It was among the many wrenching moments in an emotionally arduous four-hour proceeding; mother and son wiped their eyes and hugged.

Soon afterward, Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman, a study in exactitude, pronounced the sentence: 30 days in county jail, three years of probation, and $11,905 in penalties for the Plainsboro, N.J., resident.

In March, a jury convicted Ravi, 20, of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation for using a webcam to snoop on his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, “making out with a dude,” as the spy posted so memorably online.

Clementi, 18, discovered this by reading Ravi’s Twitter feed. By all accounts a gentle soul, the Ridgewood, N.J., freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010, the day after thwarting Ravi’s second attempt to spy on him during an intimate encounter.

At the sentencing hearing, a mass of spectators, many from the South Asian community (Ravi’s family emigrated to New Jersey from India in 1997), as well as a mob of reporters got there early to witness history.

Not in recent memory, or perhaps ever, has a legal proceeding offered a window into so many issues: homosexuality, homophobia, misuse of social media, privacy, race, youth, politics, and suicide.

The last item, both sides strenuously insisted, was not before the court. This was true, at least technically.

But Clementi, a shy violinist whose apparently eager pursuit of online hookups did little to diminish his appealing public image, almost instantly became a poster child for victims of antigay bullying. Flawed reporting — to the effect that Clementi’s encounter had been live-streamed worldwide or posted on YouTube — made Ravi’s conduct seem far less prankish, as his defenders characterized it, than perverted.

Ravi’s post-verdict appearance on 20/20 failed to make him more sympathetic. But the prospect that a once-promising young man could spend as much as a decade in state prison, and potentially face deportation, galvanized the East Asian community.

Ravi’s parents spoke after Joseph and Jane Clementi and their son, James, offered their victim impact statements. Hearing all of these plainly decent, thoroughly ordinary people talk about this extraordinary tragedy broke my heart.

Nevertheless, the sentence strikes me as an honest attempt at fairness by a judge who has focused on the requirements of the law, rather than the desires of the public (or publics). The gay rights group Garden State Equality and others have weighed in that the sentence is too lenient, and the prosecution plans to appeal. But frankly, I can’t see how more time in a cell would deepen Ravi’s remorse or lessen the Clementis’ pain.

As Ravi cried in court on Monday, his mother declared her love for him and said she felt helpless in the face of his anguish. Then she got up and offered him an embrace.

But when Jane Clementi spoke earlier about her love for her son, she couldn’t take him into her arms.

Her son is dead.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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