30-day sentence fuels debate in Rutgers anti-gay bias case

NEW YORK — Dharun Ravi had appeared stoic for three hours, but he broke down in tears as his mother sobbed beside him while pleading with the judge to spare her son from prison.

She got what she wanted, up to a point: Judge Glenn Berman on Monday ordered Ravi to spend 30 days in jail for spying with a webcam on his gay Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself days later. Ravi could have received a 10-year term for a crime jurors concluded was motivated by anti-gay bias.

But the sentencing in the packed New Jersey courtroom did anything but settle a case that erupted on Sept. 22, 2010, when Clementi threw himself from the George Washington Bridge.

Rather, it underscored debate over whether Ravi should have faced bias crime charges — normally reserved for violent assault or murder — and outlined divisions among gay advocacy groups over the wisdom of using prosecution to combat anti-gay prejudice.

“I’ve never seen such a division of opinion in gay circles,” said Bill Dobbs, a gay rights activist who sat through Ravi’s trial and sentencing, and who opposed using the bias crime distinction. He called the relatively light sentence “a good solution.”

Dobbs said the charges against Ravi, now 20, began piling up as a result of outrage over Clementi’s suicide, even though Ravi was not charged in connection with the death and nobody could say for certain what motivated Clementi.

“Why were they throwing so many charges at this one guy?” said Dobbs, echoing other gay activists’ worries about a backlash over the harsh prosecution.

But Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality said although the gay rights group had not called for the maximum, it felt Ravi’s punishment was far too light. “This was not merely a childhood prank gone awry,” he said. “This was not a crime without bias.”

The Matthew Shepard Foundation, founded after the 1998 beating death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, also expressed surprise at the “relative lightness” of the sentence. “It seems clear in light of the jury’s verdict that … bias was a motivating factor,” said Jason Marsden, the foundation’s executive director.

Ravi had secretly pointed a webcam at his freshman roommate’s bed one evening and captured him in an intimate encounter with a man known only as M.B. Initial reports alleged that Ravi had posted the video on the Web, but that turned out to be untrue.

Ravi did try to use the webcam again when Clementi had a second date with M.B. in their room. Ravi said he wanted the camera on only so he could keep an eye on his belongings. But Clementi had gotten wind of the plan and switched off the camera.

Clementi, described as a shy, sensitive violinist who had only recently come out as gay, asked for a new roommate. Before any changes could be made, he hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge, posting one last Facebook status update: “jumping off GW bridge sorry.”

Prosecutors portrayed Ravi as an arrogant, insensitive computer whiz who used his technical skills to cyber-bully Clementi — a portrayal that was repeated again and again in court Monday as Clementi’s mother, father and brother criticized Ravi and appealed for a harsh sentence.

“Why was he so arrogant and so mean-spirited and evil?” said Clementi’s mother, Jane. She accused Ravi of giving her son the cold shoulder from the moment they first met and asked why, if he was homophobic, he didn’t “just request a roommate change?”

If the presentencing statements illuminated the opposite viewpoints of the two families, they also highlighted the similarities of two clans devastated by the loss of a child — one through death, the other through a sordid trial. Both sets of parents struggled to speak through tears, their voices tinged with anger, desperation and heartbreak.

“We are not a homophobic family,” said Ravi’s father, Ravi Pazhani. “Dharun was not raised to hate gays.”

Pazhani paid tribute to Clementi, referring to his talents as a violinist and lamenting his early death. “Rest in peace, Tyler, you will always be in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.

Ravi sat silently and appeared to show no emotion, as he had throughout the four-week trial. That changed when his mother, Sabitha Ravi, broke down in sobs that filled the courtroom as she pleaded for leniency. Ravi wiped tears from his eyes as his mother said he had “suffered enough.”

Acknowledging that his sentence probably would please few, Berman prefaced it with a stern lecture: “I heard this jury say ‘guilty’ 288 times. 24 questions, 12 jurors. That’s the multiplication. And I haven’t heard you apologize once.”

Berman said he did not believe Ravi was motivated by anti-gay hatred. “But I do believe he acted out of colossal insensitivity,” he said.

He ordered Ravi to report in 10 days to begin serving his time. Ravi must perform 300 hours of community service and pay a $10,000 fine that will go to help victims of bias crimes. He faces three years’ probation and must undergo counseling about cyber-bullying.

Neither side made statements after the sentencing.

Marc R. Poirier, a professor of law at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who specializes in bias crime and gender issues, noted that the case had ushered in a rigorous anti-bullying law in the state and forced institutions to pay more attention to cyber-bullying.

“I believe the judge’s sentence will send a message to kids and (perhaps more importantly) … to their parents about the consequences of behaving the way Ravi did,” he wrote in an email.

Poirier said the Ravi case, like that of George Zimmerman — accused of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida — “serves to reopen a nationwide conversation about hate crime/bias crime/bias intimidation laws and whether they are useful tools, and if so, for what.”