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In Rutgers Verdict, Even Judge Found "Muddled" Law


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we are going to hear about this year's offerings at the Israel Film Festival, which is being held in Los Angeles. There seems to be something for just about every taste, from political dramas to romantic comedies to documentaries. We'll hear from the founder of the festival, which is in its 26th year, in just a few minutes.

But, first, more on a sad story that is all too real. Last Friday, a jury in New Jersey found 19-year-old Dharun Ravi guilty of a hate crime. In September of 2010, just a few weeks into his freshman year at Rutgers University, Ravi used his webcam to spy on Tyler Clementi, his college roommate, while Clementi was having an intimate encounter with another man in their dorm room. Ravi also tweeted about it.

A few days later, Tyler Clementi committed suicide. The case quickly became part of a national conversation around bullying, particularly involving young gay people, as well as around the mores of social media.

Well, Dharun Ravi was not charged with Clementi's death. He was charged, along with invasion of privacy, with something called bias intimidation and the jury agreed. Ravi now faces up to 10 years in prison.

As we said, this is a complicated case on many levels. It's being much discussed for its potential to set precedent in laws around bullying, so we called upon Jessica Henry. She teaches and writes about hate crimes as an associate professor at Montclair State University's Department of Justice Studies. She followed this case closely. She's also a former public defender in New York.

Professor Henry, thanks so much for joining us.

JESSICA HENRY: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, as we said, Dharun Ravi was found guilty of invasion of privacy. I think everybody understands what that means. But he was also convicted of something called bias intimidation, and that's something that the jurors said that they struggled with. And there was an interview with juror Bruno Ferreira on CNN's "Anderson Cooper" the night the verdict was reached. I just want to play a short clip of that.


BRUNO FERREIRA: We pretty much had to figure out whether or not he did it on purpose. We had to really get inside his mind to see if he actually did it intentionally with purpose or bias towards his roommate.

MARTIN: Could you tell us more about that? What is bias intimidation?

HENRY: Sure. In New Jersey, bias intimidation is New Jersey's version of its hate crime law and it's a little bit unusual. First of all, it's unusual because invasion of privacy serves as one of the offenses that can actually ratchet a typical crime into a hate crime. That's unusual in and of itself. Not too many states include invasion of privacy there.

But under the bias intimidation statute, Dharun Ravi could have been convicted if he purposefully, knowingly or caused Tyler Clementi to feel intimidated because of his sexual orientation.

And the jury did a very interesting thing. There were two incidents in question. One, was the actual filming on September 19th for a few seconds when Tyler Clementi had his friend, M.B., to the dorm room. And the jury, in that case, found Dharun Ravi was guilty of bias intimidation, not because he purposefully intimidated Tyler Clementi, but because, one, he knowingly did so and, two, because he caused Tyler Clementi to be intimidated and to reasonably believe that Tyler Clementi was targeted because of his sexual orientation.

MARTIN: What was the evidence of that, by the way, or does the case even require that there was evidence that Dharun Ravi would not have acted in the same way if Tyler Clementi, for example, had been with a woman and not a man?

HENRY: We don't. No, we know from the tweets that Tyler Clementi's sexual orientation - the tweets issued by Ravi - had something to do with the filming. But, no. It's not clear that had Tyler Clementi brought a woman that he met on the Internet who was 30 years old into his dorm room that Dharun Ravi wouldn't have done the same thing.

MARTIN: And was there evidence that Ravi intended to intimidate Mr. Clementi? Or is that even required?

HENRY: Well, under the statute, again, this is a complicated statute. Even the judge said, once the jury was excused, that he found this statute to be quite muddled. He said it on the record. It's been reported. So even the judge struggled with this statute.

What the jury decided, ultimately, is that there's two incidents. One happened on September 19th and one was an attempt to record on September 21st, and that never actually occurred because Tyler Clementi turned off the computer. The jury decided that second time, that attempt was purposeful and knowing and also caused Tyler Clementi to be intimidated.

MARTIN: What was the defense? And I do want to mention here that the facts are not in dispute, although I do think it's worth mentioning that some of the public narrative around this case is wrong, that - you know, Mr. Ravi did not out Tyler Clementi. You know what I mean. He was not private about his sexual orientation. Some of that, so some of the stuff that's been discussed is not accurate, but what was the defense here?

HENRY: The defense, in essence, was that what Dharun Ravi did, while it may have been reprehensible - we may all be really uncomfortable with the idea of turning on a webcam on a roommate's private moment - that it was not done with bias. It was not done to intimidate and it was just a stupid act. And the jury rejected that.

MARTIN: Our guest is Jessica Henry. She's an associate professor at Montclair State University's Department of Justice. We're talking about the verdict in that case involving the student who spied on his freshman roommate at Rutgers University. That student was convicted of bias intimidation and there were other charges on Friday. We're talking about what precedents might be set here.

So, Professor Henry, what about that? I mean, in a lot of these areas, like bullying and social media is still kind of uncharted territory. What precedents do you think are being set here? And do you think this case will affect other states as they consider these kinds of laws?

HENRY: That's a terrific question. And so, you can break that down on two levels. One of the things that I hope happens from this case is that we start a much more public narrative about bias based on sexual orientation. Not one necessarily that revolves around criminal law, but one that revolves around education and conversations about how we treat bias-based bullying that's targeting people based on their sexual orientation.

We have politicians who still feel very comfortable making comments that are not supportive about sexual orientation. We've got a public that is not - and Tyler Clementi - when he came out, he was obviously conflicted and Ravi was not charged with Tyler Clementi's suicide, in part because Ravi's actions probably was not the only reason that Tyler Clementi committed suicide. There were, I'm sure, many different reasons that speak to how society views sexual orientation. This invites a conversation about that.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that that was unspoken, though? I mean, do you - I guess what I'm asking you is, do you feel that the terrible death of this young man did, in fact, influence the course of the case, even though he wasn't formally charged with the death?

HENRY: I think it did, only because I don't think the police would have been involved. And if the police hadn't been involved because Tyler Clementi died, I don't know that Rutgers would have reported it to the police. It may have been dealt with internally. Tyler Clementi had requested a room change after the first incident and that room change probably would have been granted. I can't speak to whether Dharun Ravi would have otherwise been sanctioned at the university level. But I'm not sure we ever would have gotten into court in the first place.

MARTIN: And...

HENRY: And I also - oh, I'm sorry.

MARTIN: OK. And I was going to say, Ravi - we only have about a minute left. Mr. Ravi's lawyers say they are going to appeal the case. What are the grounds, do you think, for the appeal?

HENRY: One of the grounds, I think, is going to be the statute itself and the constitutionality of the statute, which required the jury to get into the minds, both of Dharun Ravi and of Tyler Clementi. They also will probably question whether or not the prosecution established bias in the way that hate crime statutes were first envisioned to capture.

MARTIN: Like what?

HENRY: Well, when you think about hate crime laws, you think about sort of the neo-Nazi extremist, and now what we have is a young college man who's facing a potential of 10 years incarceration for something that many people think was a foolish and reprehensible college prank or college decision.

MARTIN: In the meantime, sentencing is set for May, as I understand it. As a former public defender, what is your sense of - and forgive me. I know I'm asking you to predict, but what do you think is the probability that he will actually serve jail time?

HENRY: Well, under New Jersey law, because it is a second degree felony, there's a presumption of jail time. I don't think he's going to get that maximum 10 years, but I do think he may serve some prison time, although - interesting. Even Clementi's family has said that they don't think the most severe sanctions are warranted here and, also, Dharun Ravi is now facing the potential of deportation and so the judge may sort of take that into account, as well.

MARTIN: Jessica Henry is an associate professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University. She's also a former public defender and she writes about and teaches a course on hate crimes. She joined us from our NPR studios in New York.

Professor Henry, thank you so much for speaking with us.

HENRY: Thanks. It was a pleasure to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.