Prosecutors Consider Hate Crime Charges in Clementi Case

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.

Source: NPR

22 thoughts on “Prosecutors Consider Hate Crime Charges in Clementi Case”

  1. if a homosexual, an hispanic, and a black assualt a bigot because of offensive bumper stickers on his pick-up, is that a hate crime?

  2. puzzling,

    You are quite insightful in this matter…wow….excellent points….

  3. Hate is allowed in a free society.

    Creating a separate crime for something hateful thought by the perpetrator of a crime is a bridge to a society that defines and punishes thoughtcrimes themselves.

    If an enraged husband murders a neighbor having an affair with his wife, does it matter the race or religion of the neighbor? Or should we enact Jealousy Crime legislation to discourage jealousy? Or should the Hateful Husband be treated unequally from the Jealous Husband under the law?

    Was Madoff guilty of hate crimes for targeting Jewish investors? Does it matter that his crimes were vast, deliberate and pre-meditated, and should have received the highest punishment? Or should we enact Greed Crime legislation to discourage crimes motivated by greed?

    Like affirmative action in employment and public college admissions, government definitions of groups in hate crimes encourage society to see factions over individuals. Such constructs defeat the very goals they claim to advance.

    Hate crime laws create punish thought, create unequal treatment under the law, and further divide society.

  4. Henman –

    The “favored group status” for hate crimes legislation is more exclusionary than you’d expect. Forget the Episcopalians, even Jews are excluded because the government determined they’re not members of a “race”.

    Other “successful” minorities are unofficially excluded, without legal justification – regardless of societal prejudice.

    An Indian man (IIT PhD) was beaten to death in front of his children with no provocation by four black/hispanic teenagers a few months ago / miles away (same Middlesex County jurisdiction) with no hate crimes charges filed.

  5. After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers learn from the experiences of their peers. Tyler’s passing and the suicides of four other teens last month were preventable, in part, if only our youth understood the unintended consequences of their thoughtless online messages.

    “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” (Jan. 2010) presents real cases of teens in trouble over their emails, blogs, Facebook and YouTube entries and more. Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 (“Bullied to Death” show) “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teenagers who paid a price for their online posts. From suspension to expulsion and criminal charges, these teens learned that actions have consequences, oftentimes unforeseen.

    TCI is the only book available for teens to read about cyberbullying and what happened to other kids doing some of the same things online they do in their bedrooms. We can save our youth through awareness and if they “Think B4 U Click.”

    Take a look at (publisher) or on (a free teen-law website).
    Regards, -Judge Tom.

  6. HenMan,

    As far as I know, hate crime statutes generally require that one be motivated by hatred of his victim’s race, religion, national origin, sex, or sexual orientation, whatever that race, religion, national origin, sex, or sexual orientation may be. The statutes do not single out particular races, religions, etc., and they would probably be unconstitutional if they did.
    If it is more likely that a judge will give a longer sentence when the victim was a member of a minority race or religion, that is because it is more likely that people will hate members of minority races and religions.

    As the statutes require that the crime be motivated by hatred, they would not apply if the criminal did not know that his victim was gay or, if the criminal did know that he was gay, where his crime was not motivated by his knowledge that his victim was gay. This is not to deny that there is a potential for abuse, and nothing that I wrote above implies that I favor or disfavor hate crime statutes. I’m just explaining the facts as I understand them.

  7. Henry- I appreciate and understand your explanation, but I still think that hate crime laws are a slippery slope that inevitably lead to discrimination. For example, I can easily see a judge giving a longer sentence to someone who harms a Jew, a Mormon, or an Amishman. But I can’t believe that I will ever see a judge give a longer sentence to someone who harms a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or an Episcopalian. Who determines which groups are favored and which groups are not? What about a drunk who beats a man to death outside a bar and is charged with a hate crime because the man was gay. Maybe he didn’t know the man was gay, but beat him to death because he played “The Macarena” on the jukebox thirty times in a row. I see great potential for injustice in hate crime laws, and I see nothing wrong at all in the concept of “equal justice under the law”.

  8. HenMan, the hate crime statute in this case does not discriminate in favor of gays. It discriminates between those who commit a crime motivated by hatred of gays and those who commit the same crime not motivated by hatred of gays, with the latter criminals favored. A criminal’s motivation is traditionally considered by a judge in setting a sentence for a crime, with a bad motivation getting the criminal a longer sentence. It is not much different to make the criminal’s motivation part of the definition of the crime, and then attach a longer sentence to that crime.

    This is not to deny that when a criminal gets a longer sentence for having been motivated by hate — whether in being sentenced for an ordinary crime or a hate crime — he is being given extra punishment for his thoughts. But the courts do not view this a violation of the First Amendment.

  9. The media has ignored the issue of causation when discussing the tragic events leading up to Tyler Clementi’s suicide. News accounts of this case—both written and televised—suggest that Clementi ended his life because he learned that his roommate used a webcam to broadcast a sexual encounter Clementi had with another student. This conclusion may or may not be supported by the facts.

    The website Gawker has published what are reported to be some of Clementi’s last written communications. The messages, which are eerily entitled “college roommate spying”, provide insight into what Clementi was thinking in the days before his death. In addition to providing details about what actually happened, the messages are interesting in that they reveal Clementi’s plan for dealing with his roommate. After some deliberation, which you can read on-line, he decided to approach his RA and start the process to switch roommates. None of his comments suggest that he was suicidal or despondent. There are some interesting evidentiary issues associated with the use of these e-mails, which for space limitations I will not address.

    I am not defending the actions of Ravi and Wei. What they did was despicable, and possibly illegal. My point is simply that the media (and the rest of society) are linking Clementi’s suicide to his roommate’s spying. Suicide is a complicated topic. Perhaps Clementi killed himself because of what Ravi and Wei did or maybe there were other reasons. Certainly more facts are needed to determine precisely what happened and how the webcam incidents affected Clementi’s final days.

  10. I have never understood why “Hate Crime Laws” have not been struck down in the courts as a denial of the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection of the laws” clause. What we do with these laws is divide individuals into “favored” and “unfavored” classes. Is this in any way different from what we did in the past that we now condemn? I’m talking about Jim Crow laws, laws prohibiting women from voting, anti-Chinese immigration laws, the illegal detention of Japanese-Americans in 1941-42, and many other violations of INDIVIDUAL rights which are the only rights protected by the U.S.Constitution. How does a government simultaneously discriminate against gays with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, and discriminate in favor of gays with “Hate Crime Laws”? Both are discriminatory and both are wrong.

  11. I have a few questions:

    Did Clementi know he had been filmed? (after the fact)

    Was Clementi the one who disrupted the second filming by turning off the web cam or moving it?

    If Clementi knew, did he approach his RA and request a different roommate? If so, how did Rutgers respond? (If this happened then there is a record of it)

    The hate crime thing seems to me to be a desperate attempt on the part of the prosecutors to meet public demand that “something be done!”. I believe that this is a perfect illustration of “The Law” lagging behind technology. This situation has a sexual predator aspect to it that I believe the Law needs to address.

    If I were in my own room that I had paid to occupy and my roommate had installed a spy camera to take pictures of my sexual activities without my permission and then submitted those pictures to a magazine who published them … what would be the charges filed? Minus the magazine, this is exactly what happened to Clementi … in this instance Ravi is the roommate, the photographer, and the magazine publisher all in one.

  12. This is a sad case, but I have to admit that these two perps should be facing jail time for this kind of invasion of privacy and malicious digital taunting. I do believe that the government needs to prove the elements, but I have to agree with others here that I don’t see that as being too difficult. I agree with Professor Turley that a civil suit should be filed asap by the family. Maybe a large payout of cash will act as a deterrent to creeps like these two.

  13. puzzling said…”Government actively bans gay marriages and kicks out openly gay individuals in the military… and yet this same government finds that crimes by citizens against a person who was gay may be driven by “hate”, deserving special charges and punishment?”

    While an excellent point, puzzling, please refrain from questioning the government’s hypocrisy. They have internally considered and approved their reasons for the institutional, hateful discrimination. You know, things like low troop morale and the need to “preserve the traditional family.” 😉

    Now back to our regularly scheduled program: blame the populous and hold them to a higher standard. We have prisons to fill and fines to collect.

  14. Gay student: Assistant AG harassed him for months

    Published: Sunday, October 03, 2010

    The five-page, typed narrative serves as Armstrong’s argument for why he believes a personal protection order is necessary but doesn’t shed much light on why Shirvell has targeted him. A hearing on it has been scheduled for Monday afternoon before Judge Nancy Francis.
    Shirvell went on personal leave Thursday, and John Sellek, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Cox, has said he could face a disciplinary hearing when he returns.

    Sellek said he couldn’t say what that hearing might involve, but Cox has said he’s troubled that Shirvell videotaped police breaking up the party in Ann Arbor over Labor Day weekend.

  15. well, I hate to judge people without knowing them, but I am going to in this case because it looks painfully obvious that this ravi guy, based on how he looks in his year book pic, is most likely very socially awkward himself and he did all of this to gain popularity.. a cyber bully…

    what it boils down to in the end is our society (in all of those kids’ cases) does not teach respect, self confidence and self esteem but emphasizes superiority and popularity and sometimes when our kids pursue those things they make horrible mistakes that leave us wondering on how to punish them..

    if we really want to fix those problems, we need to focus less on the laws and more on the underlying issues… we should not use the laws to set examples and teach lessons.. we need to be proactive earlier than this..

  16. Government actively bans gay marriages and kicks out openly gay individuals in the military… and yet this same government finds that crimes by citizens against a person who was gay may be driven by “hate”, deserving special charges and punishment?

    Are Phoebe Prince’s bullies being charged with a hate crime? Would that be different if the crime was interracial? Or if Phoebe were perceived to be gay?

  17. Isn’t this an issue that the Feds can jump on….the unauthorized distribution of porn….consent….or some related issue…..These people are sick puppies….

  18. I suppose it’s up to the prosecutors to prove at the criminal standard that this crime’s motivation was Clementi’s homosexuality.

    Would it be enough that they established that the perpetrators sought to expose him making out with a man because they think man-on-man kissing is icky? That’s the weakest plausible standard I can think of here, but even there I’m tending to side with the notion that it would be a plausible and defensible standard.

    There seems to have been an element of bullying here that I think can only have hsd a component of homophobia. It’s a rather inexplicable act, really, and a punishment normally does contain a component expressing repugnance.

    Presumably the court has discretion as to how much stiffer the sentence should be. At first sight, I’m tempted to say that their worst crime seems to have been appalling insensitivity to a roomer’s privacy, but then I remember that one of these young men spread it about on Twitter and planned to repeat the crime. It should be easy to prove foreknowledge of the effect on his victim’s life going forward, and thus malicious intent, provided the defendant has full possession of his faculties.

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