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Dharun Ravi Appeals Highlight The Continued Hate-Crime Law Debate

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Dharun Ravi sits between his attorneys, Joseph Benedict, left, and Philip Nettl, right, during a hearing in New Brunswick, N.J., Wednesday, May 30, 2012.
Dharun Ravi sits between his attorneys, Joseph Benedict, left, and Philip Nettl, right, during a hearing in New Brunswick, N.J., Wednesday, May 30, 2012.

Lawyers representing Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers student sentenced in May for using a webcam to spy on his roommate kissing another man, have filed a notice of appeal on his behalf, asserting that the hate crime conviction is unconstitutional.

The prosecution also appealed, arguing that Ravi's 30-day prison sentence was too lenient.

Tyler Clementi, Ravi's roommate, committed suicide in September 2010, after discovering that Ravi and a friend secretly streamed his romantic encounter with another man on the internet, then urged others to watch. Ravi was convicted on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence, and bias intimidation, a hate-crime charge which carried a potential penalty of 10 years. The case sparked a national debate about cyberbullying, homophobia, privacy and how to litigate such matters.

Although Ravi was not charged with contributing to the suicide, some argued that he was unfairly punished for it anyway; others called the sentence far too lenient. While the judge condemned Ravi's actions, he said at sentencing, "I can’t find it in me to remand him to state prison that houses people convicted of offenses such as murder, armed robbery and rape.”

The prosecution immediately appealed Ravi's sentence, after the judge's ruling which also included three years of probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine and counseling.

The defense's latest notice to appeal, filed June 4, also alleged that defense attorneys had been barred from obtaining critical evidence and that Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman's actions "hindered the defendant's ability to get a fair trial." The appeal did not explain why the hate-crime conviction was unconstitutional, but if the bias-crime statute is ruled unconstitutional in this case, it could impact how similar cases are handled in the future.

The argument for unconstitutionality could focus on the way bias is determined under New Jersey's statute, said Marc Poirier, a law professor at Seton Hall University. The jury ruled that Ravi did not knowingly or purposefully intimidate Clementi, but found him guilty of a hate crime because Clementi "reasonably believed" he was targeted because he was gay.

"This means that somebody is criminally liable solely on the basis of other people's experiences, without any intent or knowledge that what you're doing causes fear," Poirier said. "I think that's problematic."

Poirier said he is broadly in favor of hate-crime legislation and is glad that the case has drawn attention to school bullying. But he also said in this case the hate-crime conviction and sentence should be appealed, partly because the usual signifiers of a hate crime, such as a violent beating or bigoted slurs, were absent, and partly because Clementi and Ravi were roommates. It is harder to prove bias motivation when the accused and the victim know each other well, he said.

"At the very least, it was a novel crime to which much of our thinking about bias crime doesn't apply," Poirier said.

James B. Jacobs, a law professor at New York University and a leading critic of hate-crime legislation, said he is doubtful the defense will succeed in arguing that the hate-crime conviction was unconstitutional, given the legal history of bias-intimidation statutes. "I think if anything, the lesson might be to take a more cautious look at aggressive use of these laws," Jacobs said.

The case exemplified everything wrong with hate-crime laws, he said. "It ends up deflecting us from the case at hand and finding something else to fight about," he said. "Everybody could agree that infringing on someone's privacy like Ravi did was wrong and should be punished, but then we find something to fight bitterly about -- as to whether to call it hate crime or not, whether to treat it as a highly serious felony."

But for some gay-rights advocates, the conversation should be focused on exactly these questions. On the day of Ravi's verdict, Stephen Goldstein, the head of Garden State Equality, a civil rights group in New Jersey, wrote about the importance of hate-crime laws. "We do believe this verdict sends the important message that a “kids will be kids” defense is no excuse to bully another student," Goldstein wrote.

In a recent interview, Goldstein said his view on the case remains steady. "There's nothing about the appeal that changes our position," Goldstein said.

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