It was a case that both stole the hearts of a nation and spurred them to action; roommate uses webcam to spy on gay teen, gay teen later throws himself off a local bridge. To the public it was the ultimate display of meanness, cruelty, a bias, hatred against gay people not seen in the 21st century. Soon Dharun Ravi became the poster boy for why bullying must be stopped; more details about the case seemed to make that even clearer, posting the roommates sexual encounter on the internet, inviting others to view it, appalling actions. Some were even calling for murder charges against the accused due to the eventual fate of Tyler Clementi. But as the case drew to a close, full details uncovered by 20/20’s interview with Ravi himself and the verdict read out, guilty on all 15 counts, including bias intimidation carrying a possible 10 year prison sentence, people started to reevaluate whether the verdict, the possible jail time really was fair, was representative of justice in a case that involved no violence, in a case where Ravi was never charged with his fellow students death, and for gay rights activists, is this what is needed to propel society into a better place? The ultimate answer, particularly for the last group, was no; Dan Savage author of the It Gets Better campaign to inspire and encourage gay, lesbian, bi and transgender youth, very quickly said we were far too hasty to blame this young man and his codefendant, who made a deal with prosecutors in exchange for testimony, instead of look at ourselves as a society, look at what other things might have led to the suicide of one with such a bright future. But media and public opinion are fickle things that never stay in one place for long, rarely hold fast to a decision.
And the pendulum has swung the other way once again now that the sentence has been decreed many people see it as another bully getting away with the horrific crimes incurring little or no true consequences. What was that sentence; 30 days in jail, 3 years probation, 300 hours community service, thousands of dollars in fines and a donation to be made to an organization that helps victims of bias related crimes, or as it seems to be being called the no sentence at all, the judge going so far as to say he doesn’t think the 20 year old should be deported to his native India, though he has no bearing on that decision. While some wonder what could possess a judge who openly called Mr. Ravi guilty of witness and evidence tampering based on the texts and social media postings he deleted, who lectured him long in court finding him lacking remorse, would hand down such a light sentence, others go back to this judges feelings about the bias intimidation charge from the very beginning finding the law itself muddled and murky, his questions about its application to this case, openly unsure if it should have been introduced, feelings not just from him but legal analysts across the board. Questions have always been raised as to why a statute meant for KKK members, white supremacists, radical extremist groups people guilty of genuine threats, violence, murder and maiming, a general disregard for individuals of an ethnicity, holding ideals other than theirs to the point of killing them for fun, was ever being applied to an otherwise model college kid who never so much as laid a finger on the deceased person who brought about this landmark case. One advocate of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest gay rights organization, looking at the case whole heartedly approving of the strategy used, attempted to convince 20/20 it was exactly the appropriate charge claiming reporter Chris Cuomo’s definition of bias intimidation, incidents involving actual threats, physical altercations was no longer adequate implying the standard has changed in this day and age, going beyond just pranks, foolishness, cruelty advancing to bias intimidation, a hate crime; though not everyone believes him. Even if you buy into his idea that invasion of privacy and hurtful words are devastating, which indeed they are, should they automatically constitute bullying without it ever being the intent of the words used, the motivation of the person using them?
Click here to see full 20/20 interview with Ravi and discover what they uncovered about this controversial case
Fortunately for justice, the sentencing appears to reflect the facts of the case despite the verdict, independent of media hype and only partial representation of events that actually took place vs. what the defendant talked about doing i.e. his online comments about posting a video of his roommates encounter against the reality it was never posted, the talk of a viewing party for the same or a different video against the truth, that there never was any viewing party and no evidence was released to the media, even after the verdict, that showed any video was found online of Tyler Clementi, never mind of a sexual nature. It is reflective of the fact there was no violence in this case, no open hostility, no tangible proof of hate; it is representative of the fact you are dealing with a cyber-bullying case where none of the electronic messages, interpreted so negatively are directed at the victim. His sentencing is reflective of the things Dharun Ravi didn’t do that he didn’t tie a black person to the back of a truck dragging them to death or severe maiming, he didn’t burn a cross on someone’s lawn terrorizing them, he didn’t bomb a church or other house of worship because he despised the religion, ethnicity of the people inside, he didn’t tie someone to a tree and beat them because of their sexual orientation. He didn’t attack someone, speak poorly of them just because they are Muslim or Arab. While on campus at Rutgers University he didn’t hurl anti-gay insults at Clementi or anyone else; the sentencing given likewise reflects he was never charged in connection to the suicide of the young man, jurors instead instructed to ignore the tragic fate of the victim. It is a testament to the fact someone finally examined the case for what it essentially was from the beginning; not about bullying, not about bias intimidation, not about a hate crime, as he wasn’t charged under the state’s tough new anti-bullying law, but rather a case about invasion of privacy, witness and evidence tampering. This judge similar to the final prosecutor handling the South Hadley 6 accused in the Phoebe Prince case dropping the statutory rape charges against teens having consensual sex with each other, looked at the case, looked at the verdict and pronounced a sentence that fit the crime not the public outcry, not the hype, not the assumptions, speculations, misinformation but the facts.
Moving forward, legal observers wonder if the sentencing will stand based on the probation charge related to the bias intimidation guilty finding or will he have to resentence the young man as both the defense and prosecution have grounds to appeal, nearly all voicing the idea that had the judge given Ravi anywhere from 1-3 years in a state prison, something in the ballpark of the typical 5-7 years given to someone found guilty of a felony carrying a 10 year sentence both prosecutors and the public would be more at ease. But here again, the sentence addresses the overlooked realities of college life such as the dorm room where the incident took place was a shared space belonging to Mr. Ravi as well, who had every right to know who exactly was in his room, who had every right to protect his belongings, even if he went about it in the wrong way. Obviously taken into account is the, however sad situation, where Tyler Clementi didn’t die at the hands of Dharun Ravi, didn’t die because he chose to get in a car with Ravi and Ravi decided to drive drunk, didn’t die because Ravi was careless with an ATV, a chainsaw or some heavy equipment and Tyler Clementi lost his life, wasn’t careless with a gun to the same tragic result. Tyler Clementi died because he made a decision to end his life; furthermore there was no known suicide note and certainly not anything clearly stating, so much as remotely implying the webcam incident was a reason, never mind the sole reason, for his choice to commit suicide. It confronts the uncomfortable, too often unacknowledged truth in this case that Dharun Ravi didn’t know Tyler Clementi was suicidal, had no indications that what he did with his webcam would push him over that or any other edge. It is an example of a judge who intuitively picked up on what 20/20 would report later, that there were other possible reasons for Tyler Clementi to despair, to feel alone, to be depressed besides the cruel videotaping done by his roommate, who from his perspective filmed him to out him to the entire world. Also wrapped intuitively in this sentence is a recognition of the likely fact Dharun Ravi has been walking around somewhat in an open mouthed daze for the past 2 years wondering just how trying to keep tabs on his possessions, trying to fix the unintended mess and tragedy that ended up being the result landed him in court fighting for his freedom, something that could very much explain his perceived lack of remorse. Going back to the 20/20 interview, according to him he didn’t bully Tyler Clementi, the webcam was to look after his things, not record a romantic encounter, it was never posted online, once Tyler was reported missing his immediate thought was of M.B., Tyler’s romantic interest treated by the courts as an additional victim, wishing he had recorded something to give the police a look at his face. Taken in that context why would he be remorseful of anything other than the horrible outcome, because from his point of view he knows he didn’t bully Tyler, had no knowledge of the emotional trouble he was having, therefore he isn’t responsible for it, tempering the remorse he feels to what someone not directly involved would feel.
Moreover how he was sentenced acknowledges the reality, whether we like it or not, that here is a young man who is still alive, no matter how much or how little time in prison, jail he serves stemming from his actions, he will have lots of years remaining to either become a productive member of society or be a drain upon it. Sentencing him this way gives him an opportunity to be the former. And before we think he’s getting off too easy, A- he has to live with his mistake, he has to live with the guilt of the part the court says he played in the death of another human being, B- wherever he goes from here, to school, getting a job, he is now a convicted felon ineligible for some types of employment, unwanted by others and more than that, he will always be that Dharun Ravi, that guy accused of taping his roommate having sex, the face of bullying in America, the face of meanness, cruelty and hate of homosexuals regardless of that not seeming to be remotely true. Lastly he will probably spend the next decade after completion of whatever the final jail term happens to be paying off the fines and charitable donation that are part of his sentence, particularly considering the challenges he now faces in getting a job. These things may seem petty to some in light of the loss of an equally important life, a future that will never come to fruition, a light taken from the world but they are not to be dismissed either when listening to Ravi’s side of the story, the why behind what he did, when we realize the guilt may be more difficult to live with than any sentence we give him, those bars that will travel with him far beyond jail.
Since the shocking sentence came down much talk has been devoted to justice and the Clementi family who had to sit in that courtroom and listen to the person implicated in their son’s death get what many believe to be a slap on the wrist; someone needs to gently sit these parents down, and not so gently shake the public, while telling them true justice for Tyler is in increased awareness, making students aware of on campus mental health services, support groups for a variety of issues including those who are gay. Justice for Tyler lies in making sure that every community college, university trade school has an anonymous suicide/crisis hotline students know they can call and no one knows their name, they don’t know the name of the person on the other end and therefore can speak freely about what’s troubling them without the stigma of who their friends and family think they are, people they know being ashamed of them. Justice for Tyler is telling this story and letting other college students see how benign intentions can be misconstrued, how actions meant to do one thing, serve one purpose can have vastly unintended consequences, providing them with alternative ways to protect their belongings, deal with potentially unsafe guests in their room brought by a roommate. The Clementi’s are in a heart rendering but prime position to speak out to other parents whose children might be gay, lesbian, bi or transgender about the importance of making sure your child knows you accept them, love them, don’t think less of them because they came out to you, something that might have made all the difference for Tyler had it been clearly communicated. This is what justice for Tyler really looks like; this is what the next step, preventing more situations such as this looks like, not throwing a 20 something behind bars indefinitely, not making one person the face of hate and bigotry in America.