Found guilty on 15 counts of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, Dharun Ravi could face a decade in prison, according to some estimates, or be deported to his native India. But whatever his sentence may be, it won’t come till May 21. For now, the verdict against Ravi will be analyzed by members of the legal and GLBT communities—as its ramifications could be vast.
“I’m not surprised with regard to the verdict,” says Robert Schalk, criminal defense attorney with Mineola’s Collins, McDonald, and Gann, and a former prosecutor. “We live in a society where everyone is recording something—technology has taken over our lives. You can’t go anywhere without a cellphone, a computer, an iPad, and everyone’s recording everything. However, a lot of times when people are doing these recordings, they may be committing a crime.”
Indeed technology is at the heart of the Ravi case. Prosecutors said Ravi set up a webcam in his dorm room at Rutgers in September 2010 and captured roommate Tyler Clementi kissing another man, then tweeted about it and tried to catch Clementi in the act again two days later. A half-dozen students were believed to have seen the live video of the kissing. Within days, Clementi realized he had been watched and leaped from the George Washington Bridge after posting one last status update on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry.”
Schalk believes the case’s combination of technology and social media make it an important one going forward.
“I think you’re going to see states enact new legislation based on this case,” says Schalk, “either further criminalizing or giving harsher punishment for cases involving bias intimidation and invasion of privacy using technology like this.” (Indeed, New Jersey lawmakers hastened passage of an anti-bullying law because of the case.) “I think that this is going to set the standard for bias intimidation, for internet security, for cases involving technology used to invade other people’s privacy.”
That standard, though, remains unclear. For instance, while the jury found Ravi guilty of all 15 counts as a whole, he was found not guilty on some subparts of some of the charges. The most serious charges—bias intimidation based on sexual orientation, a hate crime—carry up to 10 years behind bars each. Each bias intimidation charge included five questions. A finding of guilty on any of them made Ravi guilty of the entire charge. The jury issued a split verdict on those subquestions, including questions of whether Ravi knowingly or willfully intimidated Clementi because of his sexuality.
And for some, that split verdict is troubling.
“I think this verdict sends a message that it’s still OK to intimidate and harass and bully gay kids—and that’s a message that needs to be stopped right away,” says David Kilmnick, chief executive officer at Long Island Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Services Network. “The jury lost a great opportunity to not only to do justice for Tyler Clementi and his family, but to do justice for everyone.”
Kilmnick points to evidence offered in the trial, including Ravi’s own statements on Twitter, as proof that Ravi did in fact knowingly or willfully intimidate Clementi because of his sexuality. On Sept. 19, according to testimony, Clementi asked Ravi to leave their room so that he could have a guest. Later, Ravi posted on Twitter: “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Two nights later, Clementi asked for the room alone again. This time, Ravi tweeted: “I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” He also texted a friend about a planned “viewing party” and, two students said, went to friends’ rooms to show them how to access the feed.
“It clearly, clearly was intended to embarrass TC due to his sexual orientation,” says Kilmnick.
And that embarrassment has now led to a death and a jail sentence, notes Schalk.
“Do I think Mr. Ravi, when he was doing this, ever thought about the ramification that may come out?” asks the attorney. “No. He thought he was playing a practical joke. But that practical joke had deathly consequences, and now he’s learning that it has criminal consequences as well.”
-With Associated Press