Rutgers Hate Crime Case Gets Underway

The tragic case of a webcam and a suicide begins this week in New Jersey. Tyler Clementi was a three-week-old freshman at Rutgers University when his roommate Dharun Ravi allegedly taped his experience with another man, tweeted about it, and invited others to watch with him. Three days later, Clementi died after jumping off New York’s George Washington Bridge.

“…Not a minute goes by that I don’t think about him,” his mother, Jane, told PEOPLE Magazine.

The state of New Jersey has charged Dharun Ravi with 15 criminal counts including intimidation, invasion of privacy, tampering with physical evidence, witness tampering and hindering apprehension or prosecution.

But PBS News Hour reported a complex issue – what defense attorneys are calling a lack of standard of proof in the case.  Although many believe Ravi is guilty of his most serious crime, bias intimidation (otherwise known as a hate crime), there may actually have been no taped sex or posting of the video, and Tyler Clementi may already have been an out gay man.

This calls into question an important issue.

If our idea of justice rests on a legal basis, can there be no justice for a bully if he stops short of the criminal line?  If Ravi is found not guilty of all 15 criminal counts, is he also less, if at all, guilty of being astonishingly cruel?

In order for prosecutors to convince a jury that Ravi is guilty of a hate crime, they will have to prove that he is anti-gay.  Some say that Ravi was “uncomfortable” having a homosexual roommate but some witnesses say otherwise.

“He said he didn’t have any problem with homosexuals and in fact he had a really good friend who was homosexual,” witness Cassandra Cicco said about Ravi.

Emily Bazelon told Ray Suarez of PBS that it will be a difficult line to draw between what Ravi did and Clementi’s death.

“Bullying is a word we throw around all the time. It means a lot of different things, and it’s not a particularly good fit for what happened here.  This is really a set of circumstances about privacy and disrespecting someone’s privacy on a college campus.”

Furthermore, the Huffington Post published an op-ed calling off the dogs on Dharun Ravi and instead focused on changing the top-down approach to homosexual harassment. “Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a dangerous oversimplification. This formula suggests that homophobia is something ‘individuals have’ rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate.”

The defense attorney’s technicality may ultimately free Ravi of what could be ten years in prison and possibly deportation to India, where he was born.  Still, as an audience that is in college or recently graduated college, it’s tough not to ask ourselves some questions.

Why couldn’t Dharun Ravi have spent his time stealing food from the dining hall, going on dates, attending concerts, drinking cheap beer, or maybe achieving a college degree for which he was paying tuition? How much fun is a lifestyle of intolerance really?

“Children who bullied were often motivated by a desire to increase their popularity and that they chose generally unpopular victims to avoid losing social status,” a study says.

Sociologist Robert J. Hill theorizes that homophobia, despite its negative effect on all parties, feeds on a cultural field.  “When homophobia is tied to the beliefs of American society, it is obvious that the patriarchal aspects of our society is continues to fuel homophobia and the current debate over sexual orientation.”

The other man seen on the recordings making out with Clementi testified in court on Friday March 2.  Identified to the media only as M.B., the man said that he met Clementi through a “gay social network” and that the two met three times in Clementi’s dorm room.

On the second visit, M.B. said he noticed a web cam pointed in his direction and five students watching him as he left.   On the third visit, he recalled disturbing comments made from the courtyard but could not elaborate.

Of their time together M.B. said they had a very good relationship,  “We wanted to see each other every day.”

If you or someone you know feels hopeless, please don’t keep it to yourself.  Check out these outlets for help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

And look how to help others at the Tyler Celementi Foundation

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Ashlynn Arias

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