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Michelangelo Signorile

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Tyler Clementi and the Dharun Ravi Trial: Why the Verdict Is Just

Posted: 03/19/2012 9:56 am

I'm with those who lament the sad reality of young lives ruined in the aftermath of Tyler Clementi's suicide and the conviction of his roommate, Dharun Ravi, who spied on Clementi with a webcam. And I don't want to see Ravi deported, nor getting a ten-year prison term, the maximum sentence for his crimes.

But the bottom line is that Ravi was offered a plea deal in which he would have avoided jail time as well as deportation. Instead, he and his legal team put faith in what they thought was a homophobic judicial system, one that would slough off hate crimes against gays -- as it had so many times in the past -- and once again validate the "gay panic" defense, which in this case was dressed up as the "teen prank" defense.

But it didn't work. The jury did exactly as it was instructed to do, looking at the law and the 15 counts and returning with a guilty verdict on all of them. Ravi did spy on Clementi, thereby violating the invasion of privacy law. He did tamper with the evidence later, deleting text messages and tweets, knowing what he'd done. And all of the evidence shows that he did attempt to intimidate Clementi on the basis of his sexual orientation -- and he succeeded -- which was the basis of the hate crimes counts.

No jury that thought long and hard about the case could have returned with any other verdict. It is not the jury's job to think about sentencing or punishment. It is its job to follow the law.

We've seen too many cases in the past where juries didn't do that, where they accepted the "gay panic" defense, as well as its cousin, the "trans panic" defense -- in which defendants get sympathy for harboring feelings that many in society, presumably including jurors, also harbor, even if all believe those feelings are wrong.

In the days since the verdict, we've seen claims that it went too far and articles focusing on the debate on hate crimes laws. But I'd like to ask those who say it was just a "prank" to replace Ravi's statements and implications about gays with those of other groups. What if Ravi had told others that he suspected his roommate was a Jew, and made it clear that he didn't like the idea of having a Jewish roommate? What if he then spied on his Jewish roommate in an attempt to embarrass him based on some characteristic or activity connected to his being Jewish, and then invited others to mock the Jew online?

Ravi was attempting to play into the "ick" factor, sending tweets of his roommate "making out with a dude." His attorney tried to make this into an understandable reaction on the part of an 18-year-old today, claiming "he didn't know how to deal with it because he was a kid."

In other words, kids are expected to be homophobic and freaked out by affection between two men. The jury, in this day of gay-straight alliances in high school and over a couple of decades of gay and lesbian characters all over television, including MTV, didn't buy it.

That's not to say that Ravi should have the book thrown at him. On my radio program on Friday we were inundated with calls from people unhappy with me for not believing Ravi should be deported nor get the maximum ten years. But this is not about vengeance. Though Ravi broke several laws, he did not cause Clementi's death. Many others who would be spied on and intimidated would not commit suicide as a result. Ravi's crimes should be treated independently of Clementi's death.

Ravi came to the U.S. from India as a child, not of his own choosing. It would be cruel to deport him as a punishment. Nor should he serve ten years in prison. Those issues are up to the judge in this case as well as immigration officials and, ultimately, an immigration judge, and hopefully they will be fair.

But the jury did its job. The system worked. Hate crimes laws are meant to send a message about bias-motivated crimes -- which are directed at an entire group, not just at an individual -- to would-be criminals. But this case perhaps means that these laws should also send a message to those already charged -- those who know they are guilty and and are facing a trial: Take the plea and don't put your faith in the system being homophobic, because that can't be counted on any longer. Sad as all the facts are in this case, that is progress.

 

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