By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The former Rutgers University student convicted of hate crimes for spying on his roommate's gay tryst is drawing support from a surprising group before his sentencing on Monday: gay advocates.
Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide in 2010 after learning that Dharun Ravi used a computer-mounted camera to see him kissing his older man in their dorm room and used social media to encourage others to watch.
While not charged with causing Clementi's death, Ravi was vilified for gay bullying and has since been convicted of hate crimes for targeting Clementi and invading his privacy because he was gay.
Ravi, 20, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison at his sentencing hearing on Monday in Middlesex County Superior Court in New Jersey. He could also be deported to his native India.
But what had once seemed to be a clear-cut case of gay bullying gave way to a more complicated story, revealed during Ravi's criminal trial earlier this year. The incident triggered mixed feelings among gay commentators. Many are calling on the court to give Ravi probation instead of prison time.
One gay writer said he was encouraged that harassment against gay men and women was being taken more seriously, but concerned that Ravi may have been used as a scapegoat for Clementi's suicide.
"Ravi's conviction was a compelling signal that harassment and bullying of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people carries penalties," Aaron Hicklin, editor of Out magazine, said in an article arguing that Ravi be set free.
"Yet the verdict also left a bitter aftertaste, as if what was being satisfied was not justice, but revenge."
Hicklin cited a past comment by Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan that even if Clementi were alive today, he would have presented virtually the same case to the jury. Anyone who believes Kaplan, Hicklin wrote, is "kidding himself."
"Ravi was convicted because Clementi is dead," Hicklin wrote, adding that the suicide "left us reaching for simplistic answers where there are none."
Much scrutiny has been focused on the prosecutor's unusual use of New Jersey's bias intimidation statute, a so-called "hate crime" law that has the effect of increasing penalties and that, experts say, is typically used in cases involving violence or the threat of it.
At a rally in support of Ravi outside the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton this week, Bill Dobbs, a gay rights activist who attended the trial, told the crowd that Ravi was "overcharged" in the incident.
"The hate crime law in New Jersey has got so many problems that it should be repealed," Dobbs said. "It has become a dangerous weapon that is not necessary."
Similarly, Andrew Sullivan, a gay blogger for The Daily Beast, said the hate crime charges, without which Ravi would likely get probation and no prison time, were "tenuous" and "repellent."
"This was a bigoted online hazing, followed by a judicial witch-hunt," Sullivan wrote.
Jim McGreevey, the gay former governor of New Jersey, and Dan Savage, a gay columnist, are others who say that Ravi's behavior, while wrong, is being dealt with too harshly.
E.J. Graff, who writes about gay and lesbian issues, said in her column in The American Prospect, "I fear that Ravi is an easy scapegoat for a complicated problem."
At least one gay advocacy group, Garden State Equality, is pressing for prison time for Ravi, although less than the maximum 10 years.
"Justice is best served by his serving some jail time for the crime committed," Garden State CEO Steven Goldstein said. "The moderate position is not to throw the book at this young man, nor should he get off Scott free."
Intense interest in the case has prompted court officials preparing for Monday's sentencing to open overflow rooms to cope with the expected crowd.
The prosecution, in its sentencing recommendation, argued that Ravi be sent to prison, but not for the maximum 10 years.
Clementi's family was expected to read a victim impact statement, as is a lawyer for the older man who visited the dorm room, identified only as M.B.
Ravi's lawyers argue that he should be set free. They are appealing the verdict and asking for a new trial.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Stacey Joyce)