On March 16, a New Jersey jury sent a strong message to potential bullies when it convicted Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi on several criminal charges related to secret recordings he made of his gay roommate’s sexual encounters. Ravi later used social media and text messages to invite other students to watch the videos. After learning he was recorded, Tyler Clementi tragically committed suicide.
Ravi was convicted on 15 counts, including bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, invasion of privacy, and witness tampering. Under New Jersey’s hate crime laws, his potential jail sentence is increased because bias intimidation was attached to an underlying offense. Consequently, Ravi faces a possible ten-year prison sentence.
In addition to being one of the first to consider bullying in the more modern context of social media, the case was groundbreaking on several other fronts. For the first time, a bias intimidation charge was attached to an invasion of privacy charge, which some legal experts have characterized as overreaching. In most hate-crime cases, intimidation is attached to more violent and clear-cut acts of intimidation, such as painting a swastika on a building.
To convict Ravi under New Jersey’s bias intimidation law, the jury was required to determine that Ravi targeted the victim out of bias, or that Clementi reasonably believed he was being bullied because of his sexual orientation, even if that was not Ravi’s motivation. This required the jury to delve into the mind of the deceased victim.
The jury ultimately concluded that Clementi reasonably believed Ravi targeted him because he was gay. However, at least one juror has acknowledged that reaching a guilty verdict on the hate-crime charge was difficult. Juror Bruno Ferreira said the jury decided to convict Ravi by “thinking about it not being done once, being done twice—not just on one day."
Ravi will be sentenced on May 21. While he faces a ten-year sentence, prosecutors are unlikely to seek the maximum sentence given his age and lack of criminal record. It has also been reported that Clementi’s family may not push for Ravi to serve any prison time.
Others that condemn Ravi’s actions have also questioned the appropriateness of a lengthy prison sentence. While it certainly conveys the message that bullying can lead to serious criminal penalties, it arguably does nothing to address the root of the problem—intolerance.
For instance, would a more creative sentence, perhaps involving community service, do more to discourage other young people from repeating Ravis’ conduct and potentially causing another tragic death? Will a harsh sentence really serve as a deterrent to future bullies?
Of course, given the novelty of the issues decided at trial, this could all be moot if the conviction is overturned on appeal.