The virtually unpunished white collar crime against Tyler Clementi

29 May 2012

I’m heartbroken by the news that last week a New Jersey judge showed extraordinary leniency in sentencing Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who’d bullied his roommate. Following the suicide of Tyler Clementi, Ravi was tried and found guilty of 24 counts including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, tampering with evidence, and witness tampering. But that conviction was followed by a stunningly weak sentence. I’m heartbroken because although I always felt this case was a tough one, the easy sentence seems to indicate a sharp divide between how we punish white- and blue-collar criminals.

A Facebook image of Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman who killed himself after being spied on and gossiped about by his roommate

Quick capsule history: when 18-yr-old gay student Tyler Clementi killed himself only weeks after he began his freshman year (in September 2010), police quickly discovered an electronic paper trail that led to Clementi’s roommate. When Clementi had asked his roommate for use of the room to meet a date in their room, Ravi turned on his webcam and filmed the two men — and gossiped about it afterward, apparently as an effort to win friends during these first weeks of college. In addition, he drummed up interest in a web viewing party to watch Clementi’s second date with the man, a date Ravi also promised to catch with his webcam. Clementi discovered all this, issued a number of formal complaints about Ravi to the appropriate authorities, and tried to get a different roommate. (For more information, see here and the wonderful New Yorker piece here.)

Clementi killed himself the very next day after the second webcam incident and after filing these complaints. In the days after Clementi’s death, Ravi lied to the police, tried to conceal his record of email and Twitter posts, and tried to get his friend Molly to change her story about his involvement.

Ravi was not charged with being responsible for Clementi’s death, but rather with a series of counts including bias intimidation — essentially, a hate crime. The state also offered him a great plea deal. If he pleaded guilty, they would have offered Ravi zero prison time (probation only) and required him to perform 600 hours of community service and receive counseling. The state would have helped him try to stave off any deportation threats resulting from that guilty plea (Ravi is originally from India).

Dharun Ravi, the convicted criminal with virtually no sentence

Ravi turned it down. Why? Because, his lawyer explained: because “he’s innocent; he’s not guilty. … That’s why he rejected the plea.”

As a result of the subsequent trial, Ravi was found guilty on all counts by a jury in March 2012, thus setting himself up for a sentence of prison time (the state law sets 10 years as the maximum), substantial fines, and potential deportation back to India.

Instead, the judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail, not prison; 3 years’ probation300 hours of community service; and a fine of $10,000. As the NY Daily News complained in an editorial, “Thirty days is what you get for petty larceny. Thirty days is what you get for spray-painting graffiti.”

Perhaps on some level, my frustration with this sentence results from Ravi’s unchanged denial of guilt. During the sentencing, the judge chastised him: “I heard this jury say ‘guilty’ 288 times — 24 questions, 12 jurors,” Judge Berman told him. “I haven’t heard you apologize once.” In two separate (earlier) post-trial televised interviews, Ravi came across as just as much of a jerk as you might imagine, each time refusing to say anything to express remorse or guilt.

But ultimately I don’t care about the public catharsis that might result from such an apology. I decry the legal implications of this sentence.

This lenient sentence has the effect of characterizing Ravi’s case as unique — it’s like the college hate crime equivalent of the appalling Bush v. Gore decision by the Supreme Court in 2000. This sentence takes this white-collar college kid out of the category of “adult” and offers him special status: he’s a white-collar college kid, a status that seems to have smoothed the way for an excessively lenient sentence. Sure, he was an ignorant jerk, this punishment tells us; but he has “suffered enough.” Sure, it was a hate crime — but it’s not like Ravi beat Clementi over the head with an iron pipe, as in some other violent hate crimes; the fact that Ravi’s was a non-violent crime is supposed to matter to us.

Is it really worse to inflict physical than psychological pain? I doubt it. In fact, to an 18-yr-old, this might be worse than a beating.

Is a college kid really in a strange netherland between childhood and adulthood? In no other way does the law recognize this. Ravi is 18; he’s an adult.

Has he, in fact, “suffered enough” from the media circus and death threats he’s received in the 18 months since Clementi’s death? Sure, it’s doubtless been unbearable. But whether or not he has suffered is not the point. (Remember Feminema’s brilliant insight about the Shame Differential© for the rich? See how helpful this is, and only a month after I arrived at those “scientific” conclusions?) Trial by the media is not how the criminal justice system works. He committed a series of crimes and was found guilty on all counts; his sentence should reflect how New Jersey law treats other criminals who’ve committed crimes like bias intimidation, invasion of privacy, witness tampering, tampering with evidence, and hindering apprehension or prosecution.

I’m heartbroken by this decision, because it sends a series of bad messages to other white-collar criminals (and bullies) like Ravi. It continues to foster the notion that if you’re a college kid — or a banker, or a member of the government, or a politician — the law doesn’t apply to you in the same way it does to other (poor) people.

I’m a little surprised to find myself so frustrated, since ordinarily I find criminal punishment in this nation to be cruel and unusual. Except when it’s not, you see — except when the criminal is found to be a fine, upstanding young man. We wouldn’t want to ruin his future.

Every day we see the justice system applied selectively. But rarely do we see those inequities applied so selectively as in this sentence. Because, really, who believes that Ravi’s crime deserves the same punishment as that of a kid spray-painting graffiti on a wall?

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2 Responses to “The virtually unpunished white collar crime against Tyler Clementi”

  1. JE Says:

    So poor Ravi is suffering from media attention and feeling threatened. You mean his picture is all over the internet and everyone knows everything about him.

    Isn’t that what the asshole did to Tyler Clementi?

    And he still hasn’t apologized.

    • Didion Says:

      Yeah, a part of me thinks it must take an extra-special brand of asshole to go through all this and still believe you did nothing wrong. I fear what he might do to other gay men in the future.

      Likewise, I’ve heard several commentators say that because public opinion holds so strongly against him, “Ravi’s life is over.” They say he has no future. (I’m skeptical of this argument.)

      But I really believe Ravi’s failure to apologize — or whether he’s killed his own future — isn’t the point, in the end, because criminal justice is supposed to find punishments that fit crimes, and it fits a pattern of excusing white collar criminals from punishment that’s equivalent to comparatively victimless blue collar crimes. It’s the fact that he got a sentence equivalent in leniency to the phenomenally good plea offer he received before the media circus began. Ugh. It’s so frustrating.


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