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A Hateless Hate Crime

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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.

The most incriminating statement introduced by prosecutors was Ravi's joke that his webcam would "keep the gays away," which might have reflected nothing more than his discomfort with the sexual activity in his room, a feeling compounded by the fact that Clementi's visitor was an older man who was not a student and who struck Ravi as "really shady" (so much so, Ravi claimed, that he set up the first viewing because he worried the man might steal his electronic equipment).

A naive 18-year-old's uneasiness in such a situation is not the same as anti-gay hatred. Ravi did not "out" Clementi (who was not hiding his sexual orientation), did not record any images or post them online, never expressed hostility against Clementi and, far from trying to intimidate him, sought to conceal his peeping and apologized when he was found out (saying, "I've known you were gay, and I have no problem with it").

Ravi sent that message around the same time Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Although Ravi was never officially accused of complicity in Clementi's death, it is hard to believe he would have been prosecuted, let alone convicted, if people did not hold him responsible for precipitating his roommate's suicide -- another judgment that hinges on Clementi's imagined state of mind rather than Ravi's intent.

Reprehensible as Ravi's behavior was, he does not deserve to be treated like a violent felon, a point prosecutors implicitly conceded when they offered him that plea deal. So in addition to the various questionable crimes for which Ravi is to be punished, there is one more: insisting on his right to a trial.

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