Prosecutors in New Jersey have pulled off a neat trick. They have made a victim out of an immature jerk loathed by much of the country when he came to its attention two years ago.
Dharun Ravi is the Rutgers student who used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi. When Clementi committed suicide by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge, the tragedy became a morality play. It was widely reported that Ravi had posted a video of the closeted Clementi having sex, and thus outed him and drove him to take his own life. Shy and a talented violinist, Clementi became a national symbol of anti-gay bullying. “Something must be done,” declared Ellen DeGeneres.
The prosecutors have duly done something: After he refused to admit guilt in a plea deal, they have thrown the book at Ravi, who could face ten years in prison if convicted in a trial that has just begun. They are pursuing Ravi to the utmost despite the unraveling of the tidy black-and-white story that rightly outraged people at the time of Clementi’s death. In a long, nuanced account of the case in The New Yorker, Ian Parker reports that the initial narrative about the tragedy was entirely erroneous: “There was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”
Parker’s piece won’t make anyone warm up to Dharun Ravi. He is portrayed as an arrogant showoff, desperate to cover his tracks with authorities once he finds out about Clementi’s awful fate. But he is not worthy of prison time, either. It can only be misplaced zeal on the part of New Jersey’s prosecutors that makes them so determined to define Ravi’s conduct as criminal spying and (in the charge that brings the most jail time) “bias intimidation.”
Ravi and Clementi agreed to become roommates their freshman year after finding one another online. Ravi quickly discovered that Clementi was gay, since his prospective roommate was posting on a gay website. (Clementi came out to his parents shortly before leaving for school.) Ravi and a friend engaged in juvenile banter, making fun of Clementi for being gay, “poor,” and uncool. It’s painful to read, but no different than what high-school students say about one another all the time.
Clementi and Ravi barely talked when they lived together. One night, Clementi asked Ravi to leave him alone with a nonstudent in his mid-20s for what turned out to be an assignation. From a friend’s room across the hall, Ravi briefly turned on his webcam and saw the two in an embrace. He derisively tweeted that he saw his roommate “making out with a dude.”
Clementi later saw Ravi’s tweet and agonized about what to do. In the meantime, he asked for the room again for another tryst, and this time Ravi tweeted that people should tap into his webcam for a show. But Clementi turned off Ravi’s computer, and the viewing never happened. Clementi requested a change of roommates. With that, and disciplinary action against Ravi, it should have ended.
There are no laws against obnoxious disregard for the feelings of a sensitive young man. Parker writes that the indictment against Ravi “can be seen as a kind of regretful commentary about the absence of such statutes.” The case against him for invasion of privacy is shaky since he apparently didn’t expect to see or see any “intimate parts” (as specified in the law) the first time around, and the second time no one saw anything.
The charges for “bias intimidation” — a scandalously amorphous category — are weaker. One gets the sense that Ravi may well have hit it off with Clementi if his roommate had been more gregarious. And one can imagine, as Parker notes, him being just as scornful if Clementi’s sexual partner had been an unattractive woman.
Trying to right a wrong that the law can’t reach, the prosecutors are guilty of perpetrating one themselves.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2012 by King Features Syndicate