Jacob Sullum

After Dharun Ravi was convicted of "bias intimidation" crimes that carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, many people wondered why he had rejected a plea deal that would have kept him out of jail. Ravi's lawyer explained that the 20-year-old defendant's parents "didn't believe their son acted with hate, or bias, and they didn't want him labeled like that for life." But it turns out you can be convicted of a hate crime without hating anyone, which only compounds the injustice of laws that punish people for their bigotry.

The jury acquitted Ravi of trying to intimidate his roommate at Rutgers University, Tyler Clementi, on Sept. 19, 2010, when Ravi briefly used a webcam in his dorm room to watch Clementi kiss another man. But the jury nevertheless concluded that Clementi, who killed himself three days later for reasons that remain unclear, felt intimidated and "reasonably believed" he was targeted because he was gay. Under New Jersey law, that was enough.

To convict Ravi of this unintentional, hateless hate crime, the jury had to infer Clementi's state of mind and conclude that the circumstances justified it. Those elements have reasonable doubt built into them in cases like this, where the victim cannot testify and no one else knows what he was thinking. "We'll never know exactly what he was feeling," one juror conceded. "I can only assume." Our system of justice demands more than that.

We do know, based on Clementi's instant messages and posts, that he initially dismissed what he called Ravi's "five sec peep," but upon reflection was angry, especially since Ravi had tweeted about it. Two days later, Ravi told his Twitter followers the same man was visiting Clementi again and dared them to watch.

The second viewing never happened, apparently because Clementi unplugged Ravi's computer. He also applied online for a room change, complained to a resident adviser and repeatedly checked Ravi's Twitter feed. Still, the fact that Clementi had sex again in the same room suggests he was not exactly intimidated.

The jury concluded that the aborted second viewing was a deliberate attempt to intimidate Clementi "because of (his) sexual orientation." Yet the prosecution's own witnesses testified they had never heard Ravi, who was not shy about expressing his opinions, disparage gay people or Clementi.

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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