Act of indiscretion

Print edition : June 29, 2012

Judge Glenn Berman during a sentencing hearing for Dharun Ravi in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on May 21.-MEL EVANS/AP

The Dharun Ravi case in New Jersey could trigger a renewed debate on hate crime legislation in the United States.

I heard this jury say guilty 288 times - 24 questions, 12 jurors, that's the multiplication.. And I haven't heard you apologise once.

- Judge Berman of State Superior Court, Middlesex County, New Jersey, on Dharun Ravi, accused of hate crime.

There is never a dull moment in the United States criminal justice scene. Something interesting keeps happening all the time that tickles observers like me and keeps us on our toes. It is either an unusual crime or an out-of-the-box judicial decision totally alien to our own judicial system that invites a critical analysis. The Dharun Ravi incident (September 2010), on which the judicial verdict came recently, offers food for thought on both counts.

Here is an Indian youth all of 18 years an undergraduate student of the renowned Rutgers University (New Jersey) who found something odd about his room-mate Tyler Clementi, and pried on him to catch the latter's intimate moments with an adult man in the dormitory. He used a web camera for this highly objectionable and ludicrous operation and later circulated the images captured by him clandestinely at least to one other student. He set up his contraption once again a few days later to repeat his misdeed. Was his act just a prank on the part of an immature and indisciplined youngster or an act inspired by some strong views on the gay movement?

In either case this was indiscretion and lack of sensitivity at its worst. His victim decided, two days after the expose, to jump from the George Washington Bridge and put an end to his life. There is speculation that Clementi was known for his homosexual forays and that his parents were more than concerned about this. To be fair, however, to the family, this report is pure conjecture and does not dilute the gravity of Ravi's thoughtless conduct.

A few in the Indian community in the country are worried that the incident could result in their being branded as a crude group that is out of step with current trends. There seems to be no substance to this apprehension. Still one cannot ignore what The New Yorker magazine has reported on Ravi's instant message conversations just before he moved into his dormitory and found out that his prospective room-mate was gay. Ravi is known to have gone on record telling a friend: I still don't really care, except what my parents are going to say. My dad is going to throw him out the window. If this was true it indicated a certain bias on the part of the parents rather than one that showed Ravi's own predilections.

The bizarre incident evoked great public interest in the U.S. nationally for a variety of reasons. First, it was widely, and possibly incorrectly, looked upon as a hate crime, a subject that excites strong emotions in many circles in the country. The gay and lesbian movements are very strong in the U.S., and same sex-marriages are fast becoming a reality, acquiring legal recognition in at least one State, namely, California.

President Barack Obama had to modify his earlier attitude of indifference and apathy and endorse what California did. This could be an election-eve somersault. Still it has an impact on public opinion that is hard to discount. Against this backdrop, what Dharun Ravi did gave the impression that he was actually giving expression to his conviction that whoever was gay had to be exposed. Whether he actually had such a perception at all is still not known. His reticence during the trial, possibly at the instance of his lawyers, did not actually help dispel the notion that his intrusion into Clementi's privacy was motivated mainly by his abhorrence to homosexual conduct.

Dharun Ravi and his father, Ravi Pazhani, leave the New Jersey court on March 16.-MEL EVANS/AP

To make matters worse, the event took place in New Jersey, which was one of the first States to frame a stiff hate crime legislation way back in 1981. This law was directed mainly against the burning of crosses or placing of swastikas to terrorise and threaten violence. In 1990, the Act was amended to enhance sentences for demonstrative racial, ethnic or religious prejudice. According to many dispassionate observers, the New Jersey prosecutor in Ravi's case had possibly gone overboard in invoking the hate law in an instance where there was no violence whatsoever, and Ravi had no past record. Also, Ravi was not being charged for murder or abetment to suicide. He was being tried only for invading another's privacy.

Media pressure in the case was intense, and the prosecutor was in all probability influenced by this factor in pressing for a stiff penalty. There was even an offer of plea bargaining by the prosecution whereby Ravi was asked to admit the crime so that he could be spared of a stiff penalty. It must be said to the credit of Ravi that he stood his ground and did not avail himself of the offer. This, coupled with his decision not to make a statement during the sentencing process, gave more than a hint of his conviction that he did not commit any crime. But through a public statement, made evidently under pressure two days after the sentencing, he did express some remorse when he said: I accept responsibility for and regret my thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish choices. This did not go down well with Clementi's parents who believed that this was no apology at all but a mere statement in defence to appease public opinion rather than offer solace to grieving parents.

I am most impressed with Judge Berman's objectivity, poise and firmness during the trial. He was not only fair but very humane. He seemed clear in his mind that the boy who stood before him was no criminal and that his misdemeanour warranted no harsh penalty. This explains why he imposed the minimum term of imprisonment and also why he did not order Ravi's deportation to India. The judge actually upbraided the prosecution for its hawkish stance usually reserved for hardened criminals.

Ravi was never accused of murder nor was his action seen to have led directly to Clementi's suicide. These facts should have influenced the judge's perception that Ravi was no mean criminal and he did not intend harm to Clementi. The judge's remarkable compassion was evident when he said in the court: I can't find it in me to remand him to state prison that houses people convicted of offences such as murder, armed robbery and rape. I don't believe that that fits this case. I believe that he has to be punished, and he will be. This was magnanimity at its best, something that deserves to be emulated by Indian trial judges. But then they need a helping hand from the media. Where the latter are unreasonably aggressive, judges buckle, to the disadvantage of those in the dock.

The Dharun Ravi case could trigger a renewed debate on the wisdom of hate crime legislation. Laws specially designed for the purpose of tackling prejudice flowing from strong negative views on the basis of race, ethnicity or nationality seem to be derived from a feeling of vengeance rather than one aimed at rendering justice to victims. This is why there is a case for balance and moderation. Legislators need to be educated to be circumspect while responding to events that smack of targeted atrocity. We need to temper justice with sobriety and magnanimity. Or else the criminal justice system will flounder and become heavily weighted against individuals pitted against the might of the State and the fury of media.

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