In the latest twist to the case involving Tyler Clementi, prosecutors have announced that they are considering hate crime charges against Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, of Plainsboro, N.J., and another student, and Molly Wei. We previously discussed the case on this blog. I have reservations over the addition of such charges based on the evidence that is currently known about the case.
The case is a horrible tragedy and the alleged actions of Ravi and Wei are monstrous to be sure. Clementi committed suicide after Ravi and Wei allegedly filmed a sexual encounter between Clementi and a male friend in his dorm room.
Ravi is accused of streaming the first encounter on the Web and then promising another such live feed two days later.
It was too much for this young man. In his final Facebook entry, Clementi simply wrote “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” He committed suicide just 72 hours after the story ran in the media.
There is reference in some of the communications about Clementi “making out with a dude” but that alone would not seem enough for a hate crime charge. This currently looks like a vicious juvenile act that warrants serious punishment. Indeed, the two are likely to face some jail time if convicted in such a high-profile case. However, there would have to be far greater evidence, in my view, to show that these two were motivated by anti-homosexual sentiments.
Both are currently charged with criminal privacy violation and Ravi is charged with two more counts of invasion of privacy for trying to use the hidden camera to view the same student during another sexual encounter just three days later in September.
Bias or hate crimes are generally defined as crimes motivated by prejudice against others based on race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, disability or ethnicity. Such charges are often controversial, particularly in cases raising free speech issues. This is not such a free speech case, but there is a reasonable question whether it was motivated as a prank rather than out of a prejudice based on sexual orientation.
These two students are already likely to get jail time and will carry the stigma of this crime, if convicted, for the rest of their lives. That does not replace the loss of Clementi to his family or friends. However, there is a danger of hate or bias charges being used to simply increase penalties in high-profile cases absent evidence of a prejudicial motivation.
As noted earlier, I believe that family should pursue civil liability in addition to the criminal prosecution sought by the state.