Ravi punishment should fit crime

Rutgers Suicide
Judge Glenn Berman holds a folder of letters as he gives instructions during a sentencing hearing for Dharun Ravi in New Brunswick, N.J., Monday, May 21, 2012. Ravi, a former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to watch his roommate kiss another man days before the roommate killed himself, was sentenced Monday to 30 days in jail and three years of probation. Judge Berman said he would not recommend Ravi be deported to India, where he was born and remains a citizen. But Ravi was ordered to get counseling and to pay $10,000 that would go to a program to help victims of bias crimes. (AP Photo/Mel†Evans)

Even the 30-day prison sentence given to a former Rutgers University student who used a webcam to secretly record his roommate having a romantic encounter with another man may have been too much.

Many legal experts agree that Dharun Ravi, 20, probably wouldn’t have been charged with any crime had not his victim, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide two days after the September 2010 incident.

Even so, there was no evidence that Ravi’s despicable act directly triggered Clementi’s death. The assumption is reasonable, but Clementi’s correspondence with a friend indicated he was despondent because of his mother’s reaction to his recent admission that he was gay.

“Mom has basically completely rejected me,” said the 18-year-old college freshman. Other notes left by Clementi suggested he wanted to stop rooming with Ravi, but there was no hint that he was contemplating suicide.

Ravi texted Clementi what he may have meant as an apology after the webcam incident, saying, “I’ve known you were gay, and I have no problem with it. ... I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding.”

That Ravi would suggest his invasion of Clementi’s privacy was only a “petty misunderstanding” is outrageous. But his being cavalier is also what one might expect from an immature 18-year-old who just months earlier was in high school. His behavior was callous, but criminal?

A Middlesex County jury said yes. In March, it convicted Ravi on 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, and tampering with evidence. Judge Glenn Berman refused a defense request to overturn the verdict, saying it had been fairly reached.

But Berman put the case in better perspective Tuesday by sentencing Ravi to 30 days imprisonment, three years’ probation, 300 hours of community service, cyberbullying counseling, and a $10,000 probation fee. Those arguing Ravi deserved the maximum 10 years in prison forget that he could have avoided any jail time by agreeing to a plea bargain offered earlier by prosecutors.

The jury was told it shouldn’t connect Clementi’s suicide to the bias charges against Ravi, and that’s what the rest of the world must do, too.

It would be easy to lump this case in with heinous crimes where there was no doubt that the victims’ deaths were calculated by homophobic predators. But the tragic consequences of Ravi’s obvious insensitivity toward Clementi appear to have been unintended.

That may not satisfy Clementi’s family, which must live with the fact that he took his own life. It may not satisfy those persons who actively and necessarily seek to draw more attention to the bigotry and violence that continue to be a fact of life for homosexuals. But it’s what’s right.

In a recent Star-Ledger oped column, former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who shocked the state with his 2004 announcement that he is gay, said it would be counterproductive to the gay-rights movement to make a scapegoat of Ravi. “Homophobia was replete in Clementi’s government, church, and culture, not just Ravi’s stupidity,” said McGreevey.

The culture is changing, but it wasn’t fast enough for Tyler Clementi. His death is not in vain, though. Even as the sentencing of Ravi is debated, people are also acknowledging that much more must be done to stop the biased treatment of gays.