TOPICS > Politics

Why Rutgers Webcam Case Gleaned National Attention

May 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in prison for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, who later jumped to his death from a bridge. Jeffrey Brown and The New York Times' Kate Zernike discuss the ruling and its implications.

JEFFREY BROWN: A New Jersey courtroom drew nationwide attention today. The sentence was handed down in a case involving a gay college student who killed himself after being spied on by his roommate.

JUDGE GLENN BERMAN, Middlesex County, N.J.: I heard this jury say guilty 288 times, 24 questions, 12 jurors. That’s the multiplication. And I haven’t heard you apologize once.

JEFFREY BROWN: After delivering a stern lecture, Judge Glenn Berman gave Dharun Ravi 30 days behind bars, plus three years of probation.

The 20-year-old Ravi could have gotten 10 years in prison for convictions on invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and destroying evidence. In March, a jury found him guilty of using a webcam to record his Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi, a sexual encounter with another man, then posting about it on Twitter.

Days later, in September of 2010, Clementi killed himself by jumping off New York’s George Washington Bridge.

Today, Clementi’s mother addressed the court before the sentence was handed out.

JANE CLEMENTI, mother of Tyler Clementi: My question is, why didn’t his roommate just request a roommate change? Why was he so arrogant and so mean-spirited and evil that he would humiliate and embarrass Tyler in front of new dorm mates, the very people Tyler was trying to meet and become friends with?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ravi wasn’t charged in Clementi’s death, and before the trial, he turned down a plea bargain that would have given him no jail time. His mother appealed today for leniency.

SABITHA RAVI, mother of Dharun Ravi: As a mother, I feel that Dharun has really suffered enough for the past two years. The media’s influence on this case is devastating. My 20-year-old son already has too much burden on his shoulder to face for the rest of his life.

JEFFREY BROWN: In addition to the jail time, Ravi was ordered to pay $10,000 to a program helping victims of bias crimes. He’ll also have to perform 300 hours of community service.

But the judge recommended that he not be deported to his native India. Ravi is expected to appeal his conviction and prosecutors announced late today they will appeal the sentencing decision.

A short time ago, I spoke with Kate Zernike, who was in the courtroom today reporting on the case for The New York Times.

Kate Zernike, welcome.

So Dharun Ravi faced up to 10 years in prison. Was this sentence a surprise for those in the courtroom?

KATE ZERNIKE, The New York Times: I think it was an enormous surprise. I think it was a surprise even to the people who had argued for leniency on his behalf, partly because the judge went on, you know, quite an extended tongue-lashing of Dharun Ravi before sentencing him, and then almost sort of dropped into the middle of his conversation the fact that he was going to get only 30 days in jail.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did the judge give any hint or sense of why he ended up with a lighter sentence or what the reasoning was?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think the judge did nod to the fact that he believed the legislature passed — The New Jersey state legislature passed this law on bias intimidation and intended it to be attached to crimes such as — as crimes that were really violent, not crimes like invasion of privacy, which is what Dharun Ravi was convicted of two months ago.

Also, prosecutors noted that a corrections officer, in doing the pre-sentencing interview with Dharun Ravi, had said that he was respectful and that the — the corrections officer didn’t recommend jail time, recommended actually against prison time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, tell us a little bit more about what it was like in the courtroom today, clearly some very moving statements from the mothers of both of the two young men most closely involved in this. What was it like?

KATE ZERNIKE: It was incredibly emotional. Even reporters watching it were sobbing. I mean, you saw these two mothers, both of them described actually — both of them in their prepared statements had described the first day dropping their children at college and how much promise they thought they had and sort of what they expected for these two young men and how they hoped this relationship between the two, which was very clearly cool from the beginning, they hoped it would evolve.

You know, Mrs. Clementi, Tyler Clementi’s mother, talked about her son’s enormous promise and just the sheer pain of having to sit through — sit through court testimony and hear just sort of the agony of her son’s final days. They also seemed very angry at the defense. They felt that the defense had sort of tried to make this Tyler’s fault, that he had shown absolutely — that Dharun Ravi had shown absolutely no remorse.

In the one televised interview he did after the verdict, Dharun Ravi said, I’m comforted by the fact that Tyler wasn’t really bothered by what I did. He sort of implied that Tyler had been unaffected by this, that there was so much else going on in Tyler’s life that what Dharun did, the actual spying, hadn’t affected him.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then Dharun Ravi’s mother also spoke. And that was also emotional.

KATE ZERNIKE: That was incredibly emotional.

And I think that was where — all along in this verdict, people have been — since the verdict — people have been saying one life has been lost. If we sentence Dharun Ravi, two lives will be lost. And I think that was what she was really conveying was that he’s dropped out of Rutgers University. He’s been sitting at home. He takes very little pleasure in anything but talking to his little brother and being with the family dog. He’s been taking courses online.

But he’s lost 25 pounds. She really talked about how, as she said, he’s sort of been sentenced already.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this case, of course, drew lots and lots of attention. What kind of reaction have you been able to get, if any, from outside groups, particularly gay advocates?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, certainly Garden State Equality, which is a statewide group that’s been pushing very hard for the anti-bullying law that was passed after Tyler’s suicide, they have said that this is, you know, just a slap on the wrist.

They say that even shoplifting defendants in this state get longer sentences than what Dharun Ravi is getting. On the other hand, many gay rights advocates who said that they don’t believe that hate crimes charges are the best way to guard against bullying of gays said that they actually think that this is a reflection of the backlash and that this reflects that people felt really that the prosecutors had gone in too hard, that they really reached too far in trying to bring charges against Mr. Ravi.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, the case really played into these two major debates out there, I guess.

One is the one you were just referring to, which is the laws against hate crimes, and then the whole issue around teen suicide, particularly gay teen suicide. What’s your sense of where that — where those stand now after all of this? What did this raise?

KATE ZERNIKE: Well, I think we’re going to see a real examination even in New Jersey, if not in other states, of hate crimes statutes and whether they should be — whether they can be attached to crimes like bias intimidation or whether they do have to be by definition violent crimes.

And I think also people are going to try to sort of take this crime and think about, you know, what gay rights advocates have argued. Those who support leniency for Dharun Ravi, what they were saying is let’s talk about all the ways that Tyler Clementi was told that being gay was bad. It wasn’t just his roommate. It was churches. It was, you know, people in school, and that they really — I think there’s going to be some effort to try to draw broader lessons from this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in the meantime, Dharun Ravi’s lawyers said they might appeal the original verdict, and the prosecutors today said they definitely were going to go ahead to appeal the sentencing, right?

KATE ZERNIKE: Absolutely. Prosecutors appeared very, very stunned, very angry about this verdict.

They had planned a press conference after the — sorry — after the sentencing. They had planned a press conference and canceled it. They really put out just a brief statement saying that this is not — this deviated from sentencing guidelines and they will absolutely appeal. They have 10 days to appeal before Dharun Ravi is expected to report to prison on — sorry, to jail on May 31.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kate Zernike of The New York Times, thanks so much.

KATE ZERNIKE: Thanks, Jeff.