Special Report

Nobody Pushed Tyler Clementi

The growing injustice of hate crime jurisprudence.

By 5.23.12

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On Monday, in a New Jersey court, Judge Glenn Berman sentenced Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi to 30 days in jail for crimes that emanated from his freshman-year spying on a former roommate with a webcam. That roommate, Tyler Clementi, was seen briefly kissing another male. Ravi's snooping -- and then "tweeting" about it and sharing the video feed with several friends -- is widely assumed to have been a factor in Clementi's September, 2010 suicide, accomplished by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

However, a suicide note left by Clementi, which has not been made public, reportedly did not name the Ravi-related events as the reasons for his suicide. And an in-depth story of the lives and interactions of Clementi and Ravi in New Yorker magazine shows Clementi not particularly bothered, at least initially, by the spying: "But its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything / he just like took a five sec peep lol." Furthermore, Clementi had gone to a gay student association meeting at Rutgers and told a friend "I would consider myself out… if only there was someone for me to come out to."

The desperation of a young man driven to end his own life is nearly beyond comprehension -- and must certainly be so to his parents. But sadness, even tragedy, must not be confused with injustice.

Ravi, who, like Clementi, was 18 at the time of the "spying," was also sentenced to 3 years of probation, a $10,000 fine, counseling, and 300 hours of community service by the judge who scolded Ravi for "insensitivity" and for being unapologetic for his actions during the trial. However, Judge Berman suggested that Ravi's upbringing, immaturity, and unlikeliness to do this sort of thing again weighed against a longer jail sentence. More importantly, but not stated by the judge, it weighed against there ever having been a felony prosecution.

The New York Times reports that a number of gay activists opposed Ravi serving jail time, recognizing that his behavior "was not the blatantly bigoted or threatening actions that typically define hate crimes." They rightly fear public perception of "payback," which is not the purpose of our justice system and which may not have happened had the victim not been gay or not committed suicide. The latter is critical in that Ravi faced no charges in direct connection with Clementi's death.

Nevertheless, it surprised many that the judge didn't give Ravi a longer sentence based on multiple convictions, including at least one felony subject to up to 10 years in prison. Others believe the penalty was just, including one gay activist who suggested that "this was not a crime without bias." While he meant to say that Ravi's crimes included or stemmed from bias, his words could be construed with a more accurate meaning: without the claim of "bias" behind Ravi's actions, they might not have been considered a crime, or at least not prosecuted.

Beyond the legitimate question of whether judges, lawyers, and jurors can know what was in a person's mind, is "bias" a reasonable consideration for our legal system? True justice must punish acts, not thoughts; Lady Justice, even if she could read minds, must not peek through her blindfold.

Gay former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey penned a note entitled "Don't make Dharun Ravi our anti-gay scapegoat." The title is confusing in the context of McGreevey saying that the guilty verdict against Ravi "was a vindication of American justice," but his point seems to be that "homophobia was replete in Clementi's government, church and culture, not just Ravi's stupidity" and that prison "won't cure Ravi of any bias against the LGBT community."

Apparently, McGreevey -- who lied to the world, including to his former wife about his sexuality, and who appointed his male lover to a homeland security position for which the man was not qualified -- believes that Ravi has several million co-conspirators. Yes, we're all guilty (well, not McGreevey or other gays) for Clementi's death -- even though McGreevey knows no better than we do why the young man felt compelled to end his own life.

The now 20-year old Ravi was found guilty of a range of crimes that he did commit -- again, none relating directly to Clementi's death -- including invasion of privacy and tampering with evidence. But would he have been charged with any of them other than in connection with a hate crime such as "bias intimidation"?

That charge of bias intimidation, which Ravi was convicted of, has an Orwellian air, a stench of the dark, fetid, stultifying side of political correctness. The crime, as it name suggests, occurs when an offense "was committed with a purpose to intimidate the victim or any person or entity in whose welfare the victim is interested because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity" or because "the victim or the victim's property was selected to be the target of the offense" because of one of those same characteristics of the victim.

These laws do not bring equal protection to all Americans; they turn some Americans into second-class citizens. The degree of our second-classness is proportional to how many "majority" (or, as some on the left would suggest, "oppressor") groups we are part of, e.g. heterosexual, Caucasian, Christian, and male (even though women are a majority of the population) and how few of those same groups a victim is part of. (If you doubt this conclusion, consider the hyper-political second-degree murder indictment of George Zimmerman despite a growing raft of evidence, which the special prosecutor must have been aware of, supporting his story of self-defense against Trayvon Martin.)

While Ravi isn't Caucasian, the divisions caused by our legal system's approach is emphasized by Internet discussions such as "Dharun Ravi's Biggest Liability: He Was Indian"; yet it is equally valid to wonder whether he would have been treated even more aggressively by prosecutors had he been white. What sort of justice system allows, even encourages, that sort of analysis?

"Bias" and "hate crimes" laws create both the perception and the reality of a system being biased against offering equal protection of the law to all; they erode our nation's character as a people united as Americans (and people who hope to become Americans).

As if the bias intimidation law's usual implementation isn't bad enough, it also allows a charge of the attempt to commit bias intimidation. This is an invitation to prosecutorial intimidation and undue leverage, even blackmail, by any "minority group" member against other members of society.

In Ravi's case, his Twitter messages made clear that he thought something of his "roommate…making out with a dude." That's not the same as proving bias; indeed it is more likely, given that Ravi then said "Yay" rather than "Yuck," that he thought he'd stumbled on one of life's occasional bizarre happenstances, one that might make for a laugh with his college friends who seemed more interested in ethanol than education.

Ravi's lawyer noted, "This case is contrived, is being treated and exists today as if it's a murder case." Prosecutions like Ravi's smack of a civil rights movement, originally well-intended, now run amok in a fog of lost perspective and a fog machine of power-hungry special interest groups and political ladder-climbing prosecutors.

The judge did not recommend deportation for Ravi. But with a felony conviction on his record, what hope does he have at a future in the United States? Some will say that destroying Ravi's future is just because he destroyed Clementi's (something far from demonstrated), but justice must be about the rule of law, not the satisfaction of retribution.

Ravi was guilty of terrible judgment and of minor crimes, but this case only went to trial because the "victim" (and I use that term as loosely as with the idea of a "victim" of Romney's barber practice in high school) was gay. Instead, he now has a felony record and his life, at least in America, is all but over.

Clementi's suicide, although tragic, is not Ravi's fault despite his juvenile spying and "tweeting."

It may seem unfair, but curing such unfairness by penalizing thoughts is not the proper province of government. In terms of the justice system, the advent of "hate crimes" laws and politically-correct prosecutions make victims of people like Dharun Ravi, who was nothing more than a bone-headed college student and who never laid a finger on, or even insulted, Tyler Clementi.

This is not to downplay the anguish caused by a young man killing himself. The loss that Clementi's parents feel is one that will be with them for the rest of their days; it is a loss that no parent should ever experience.

"Hate crime" -- really thought crime -- laws divide rather than unite our nation, causing justifiable fear among members of the "majority" from interacting with others for fear of being accused of holding an impermissible opinion. They cause some Americans to recognize that prosecution of crimes against them will be pursued less aggressively than of crimes against others, simply because we have the apparent misfortune to be some combination of heterosexual, white, straight, Christian, or male.

To be sure, American blacks, have historic grievances regarding their treatment by our legal system. But mistreating others as some sort of misplaced penance -- or for political gain -- does great harm to our nation.

As for Dharun Ravi, he may have made Tyler Clementi think about the bridge -- and he may not have -- but Clementi himself was responsible for jumping. Tragedy following stupidity must not be confused with injustice, and destroying a young man's future as retribution for a life ended prematurely must not be confused with justice.

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About the Author
Ross Kaminsky is a self-employed trader and investor and is a senior fellow of the Heartland Institute. He is the host of The Ross Kaminsky Show on Denver's NewsRadio 850 KOA on Saturday mornings from 6 AM to 9 AM. You can reach Ross by e-mail at rossputin(at)rossputin(dot)com.