Some gay-rights advocates oppose prison time in Rutgers case
Dharun Ravi, who was convicted on charges related to the death of his gay roommate, will be sentenced Monday, and many advocates have argued against the stiff prison term prosecutors have recommended.
The New York Times
In the two months since he was found guilty of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Dharun Ravi has gone from being a symbol of anti-gay bias to being something of a folk hero, with rallies of his supporters urging the court to "free Dharun."
What may be most surprising is how many of those arguing in his defense are prominent gay-rights advocates.
With Ravi scheduled to be sentenced Monday, many of them have argued against the prison term prosecutors have recommended. They say that Ravi is being punished for the suicide of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, although he was not charged in it, and that pinning blame on him ignores the complicated social pressures that can drive gay teenagers to kill themselves.
As repugnant as Ravi's behavior was, they say, it was not the blatantly bigoted or threatening actions that typically define hate crimes. Some fear that a sentence that overreaches might provide tinder to anti-gay sentiment — a New Jersey talk-radio host complained soon after the verdict of the "gay lobby" railroading Ravi.
While Clementi's suicide in September 2010 galvanized public attention on the struggles of gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers, the question of how to punish Ravi has revealed the deep discomfort that many gay people feel about using the case as a crucible.
In an op-ed article in The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., this month, Jim McGreevey, who resigned as New Jersey's governor after declaring himself "a gay American," argued Ravi's conviction "showed how far we have traveled from the hateful, homophobic past."
"The criminal justice system worked, this time for a gay victim," McGreevey wrote. "But there was something disquieting about the prospect of retributive punishment being meted out on behalf of a gay young man."
Ravi set up a webcam to spy on Clementi three weeks into their freshman year at Rutgers University, after Clementi asked to have the room alone so he could be with a man he had recently met on a website for gay men.
Clementi's suicide three days later prompted an outcry from celebrities and politicians and pushed New Jersey to pass one of the nation's strictest anti-bullying laws.
In court, prosecutors used an extensive electronic record to show how Ravi had sent Twitter and text messages declaring that he had seen his roommate "making out with a dude," and encouraging others to watch. The jury convicted Ravi on all 15 counts, including invasion of privacy, hate crimes and tampering with evidence after he tried to cover up his Twitter trail.
Seattle's Dan Savage, The Stranger columnist whose video campaign, "It Gets Better," began in response to other suicides of gay teenagers just before Clementi, 18, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, argued that simply locking up Ravi was a lost opportunity to talk about the other institutions and people "complicit" in Clementi's death.
"What was he told about being gay growing up, by his faith leaders, by the media, by the culture?" Savage said of Clementi. "Ravi may have been the last person who made him feel unsafe and abused and worthless, but he couldn't have been the first.
"The rush to pin all the responsibility on Ravi and then wash our hands and walk away means we're not going to learn the lessons of these kids."
In a memo this month, the prosecutor, Julia McClure, urged that Ravi be imprisoned as a deterrent to anti-gay bias. She "adamantly disputed" that his was the exceptional case that should make the judge deviate from awarding him the five- to 10-year prison sentence associated with the charges.
In the memo, McClure quoted a text message, not introduced in court, that Ravi had sent to a friend the day after Clementi killed himself, arguing that it showed a lack of remorse. Ravi, who by then had left Rutgers, asked, "How can I convince my mom to let me go back Friday night and get drunk?"
Ravi rejected two plea deals that would have included what his supporters are arguing for now: community service, probation and no jail time.
McClure said she would not push for the maximum prison sentence. But she urged the judge, Glenn Berman, to ignore pleas from pundits.
And many gay-rights advocates have argued against leniency, to reinforce the message that Ravi's behavior should not be written off as teenage foolishness.
Suzanne Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia, said the sentence had to match what others would get; "Most 20-year-olds who commit serious crimes don't get community service."
Goldberg compared Ravi's case to that of a teenager who kills someone while sending text messages and driving. "It shows the same disregard of human life and human dignity that stems in part from immaturity," she said.
Ravi could face deportation to his native India if he is given a prison sentence. Many Indians have been among his biggest supporters. At a rally on the State House steps in Trenton last week, some waved signs with the headline on McGreevey's article: "Don't Make Dharun Ravi Our Anti-gay Scapegoat."