The Merciful End to the Trial of Dharun Ravi
The judge came to the correct verdict in this incredibly sad case.
Photograph by John O'Boyle/AP Images.
Judge Glenn Berman was about as merciful as he could have been today in sentencing Dharun Ravi, the 20-year-old former Rutgers student convicted of spying on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, with a webcam a few days before Clementi committed suicide in September 2010. The judge sentenced Ravi to 30 days in jail, as part of three years of probation. Ravi also got 300 hours of community service and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine. Given what he did, how he has handled himself, and the maximum sentence he was facing—10 years in prison—Ravi should consider himself lucky. Very, very lucky.
It was an emotional morning in court—more emotional than much of Ravi’s trial. Everyone who spoke—the judge, the lawyers, the families of Clementi and Ravi—wrestled with the terrible weight of Tyler’s death, and the extent to which it was caused by Ravi’s callous and cruel decision to spy on Clementi while he had a date with a man (known as M.B. through the trial) in the room Clementi and Ravi shared at Rutgers.
It’s not a question with a known answer. And so I felt my heart pulled by both families. Clementi’s father told the judge, “It’s hard for me to imagine the humiliation he felt from having someone film his most intimate moments.” He mentioned how often Clementi checked the Twitter page where Ravi braggingly posted his spying plans as evidence of how disturbed his son was by his roommate’s salacious bid for attention. Tyler’s brother James said, “Tyler’s final days and hours were filled with fear, shame, and a despair so great it ripped him away from me forever.”
Ravi’s parents, on the other hand, denied any link between their son’s actions and Clementi’s death. Ravi’s father, Ravi Pazhani, said his son harbored no prejudice toward gay people—the underlying rationale for the bias conviction that was the reason Ravi faced multiple years in prison. “We are not a homophobic family,” Pazhani said. That seemed like an understandable defensive note to strike; less so was Pazhani’s angry tone and comments lashing out at “the vengeful, malicious, selective prosecution.”
But I began to see why Pazhani felt he too had a right to be angry—even if he’d been better served by keeping that emotion under wraps—when he ended by saying, “I have never felt so powerless in my life.” And Ravi’s mother, Sabitha conveyed why she feels her son has already been punished enough as she weepingly recounted the effect of the mass condemnation of her son after Clementi’s suicide. “It all started with the media ripping him apart,” she said. “He was devastated and broken into pieces … as a mother I feel that Dharun has really suffered enough from the past two years.”
We have to take Sabitha’s word for it, I’m afraid. Ravi cried while she spoke, but he chose not to explain himself today, which seemed like a pity to me. “Every body haaaatess #DharunRavi,” a Twitter user named J.A.H. tweeted this morning. True enough, and Ravi didn’t help himself with two interviews he gave after his conviction. Ravi said he was sorry, but his insistence that he acted without any anti-gay feelings at all just wasn’t plausible. Ravi said he turned on his camera only because the man Clementi invited to the room, M.B., looked “strange.” (M.B. wasn’t a student and was a few years older.) He claimed he would have acted the same way if a girl who “looked as strange” had come to the room. I don’t buy it. More believable, but not especially sympathetic, was Ravi’s response to the question “What were you thinking?” He answered, "I wasn’t,” adding, “I got caught up in what I thought was funny, and my own ego."
I’ve been opposed to Ravi serving prison time—not because I condone what he did, but because a harsh sentence seemed out of proportion given the stupid and jerky aspect of the invasion of privacy he committed. I can understand, too, why he feels that he has born more than his share of the blame for Clementi’s death. But I found myself wishing that he’d helped Judge Berman out today by giving a self-aware and mature accounting of himself. By acknowledging, at least, that he can understand why it’s wrong and hurtful to spy on a young gay man and send a titillated tweet like “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” I wanted some showing from Ravi, in other words, that he has grown up. Instead, he stayed silent, and his letter to the court, asking for leniency, was “unimpressive,” as Judge Berman put it.
It was left to M.B., through his lawyer, to make the hearing’s most nuanced statement: "While I bear no anger towards Mr. Ravi, after much thought and many sleepless nights, I must say that Mr. Ravi should serve some type of confinement so that he can reflect on the serious harm he has caused. I do not believe that he has taken responsibility for his conduct, and to this day he seems to blame me for the actions he took.”
Judge Berman’s sentencing decision may well disappoint M.B., as well as the Clementi family. They didn’t ask for a particular sentence, saying they trusted the judge to get it right. Did he? I think the answer is yes, if you pay attention to the judge’s reasoning. He faulted Ravi’s lack of remorse and humility, saying, “I haven’t heard you apologize once.” The judge also said, “You can’t expunge the misconduct and the pain you have caused.”
But Judge Berman rightly found that Ravi is probably not at risk to commit another similar offense. He took into account Ravi’s young age—18 at the time of the spying—and his previously clean record. And Judge Berman also was right, I think, to say that while what Ravi did was wrong, he didn’t contemplate the harm his misconduct would cause. And Judge Berman correctly pointed out that in the New Jersey cases in which a conviction for a bias crime has led to a long prison sentence, the bias was related to a crime of violence. A victim was beaten with a metal rod, for example. There was no violence at issue here, however unsavory the webcam spying was, and it’s an important distinction that’s worth preserving. Though I found myself more torn about the light sentence Ravi received today than I expected, I agree with the gay rights activists who have questioned what purpose a harsh prison sentence for Ravi would serve.
The saddest aspect of this case to me remains the missed chance Ravi and Clementi had to connect in the few weeks they knew each other. Ravi had learned via online searches that Tyler was gay before their school year had begun. His mother recounted in court that when she and her husband arrived with their son on the first day of school, the family walked into his new room to find Ravi already ensconced at his computer. “No greeting, no smile, no recognition, no nothing,” Jane Clementi said of Ravi’s response when her son walked in. Ravi’s parents had to prompt him to acknowledge them. To Clementi’s mother, in retrospect, the encounter was proof that Ravi had written off her son once he discovered Clementi was gay, not bothering to go deeper, to find out more about more about who this fellow 18-year-old really was. It’s that act of turning away, with its lack of empathy and compassion, that will continue to haunt us. As it should.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.