Dharun Ravi Found Guilty

Interpreting the verdict in the Rutgers webcam-spying case.

Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers University student charged with bias intimidation against his gay roommate.

Dharun Ravi was found guilty Friday of intimidating and invading the privacy of his former roommate, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide

Mark Dye/REUTERS/Newscom.

Dharun Ravi will surely go to prison for spying on his former Rutgers roommate, Tyler Clementi.

Carefully making its way through a verdict sheet with more than a dozen multipart charges, a jury in New Jersey found Ravi guilty of multiple counts of invasion of privacy, guilty of some counts of intimidating Clementi because of his sexual orientation, and also guilty of tampering with evidence by changing and deleting tweets he posted about his plans to spy on his roommate with a webcam.

The jury found Ravi not guilty of some counts of bias intimidation. But the mixed verdict mostly went against him, and it repudiated the defense argument that Ravi was just a “stupid” and “immature” kid who turned on his webcam when he saw an older guest go into Clementi’s room because he was worried the man might steal his iPad. Instead, the jury found that Ravi criminally invaded Clementi’s privacy in a way that could have reasonably made Clementi feel that he was being targeted because he was gay. That seems right, in terms of the facts. A prison term still seems harsh to me for this 20-year-old who has never been in trouble with the law before. But Ravi and his family rejected a plea offer from the state that would have required no jail time, no bias conviction, and assurances that Ravi, who is not an American citizen, would not be deported. It was a big gamble to go to trial. As predicted, Ravi lost.

Because Tyler Clementi took his own life a few days after Ravi glimpsed him on the webcam—and the day after Ravi set up another “viewing party,” which led Clementi to ask for a new roommate—this story was initially misunderstood as a parable about the outing of a closeted gay freshman. In fact, Tyler Clementi had come out to his parents before starting at Rutgers in the fall of 2010, and we still don’t know why he killed himself. The suicide note he left behind, along with three Word documents with telltale names—“Gah.docx,” “sorry.docx,” and “Why is everything so painful.docx”—weren’t turned over to the defense or made public. (According to the judge, they weren’t directly relevant to the case against Ravi.)

And so this case isn’t really about establishing a direct link between Ravi’s spying and Clementi’s death. But it is very much about the privacy that college students deserve in their dorm rooms. And it’s also about how laws sometimes enforce social norms even if they haven’t fully taken hold—in this case, by punishing homophobic behavior that some college students, alas, wouldn’t think twice about. It’s clear that Ravi was freaked out by his gay roommate’s dates with another man. And by expressing his agitation by turning on his webcam, and then going on Twitter to invite other people to watch, Ravi didn’t just behave badly—he broke the law. New Jersey has decided to up the punishment for crimes like invasion of privacy when they’re based on targeting someone for his sexual orientation just as the state punishes people who target others for reasons of race and religion.

It’s safe to say that it never would have occurred to Ravi that he could go to prison when he was titillating his Twitter followers about Clementi’s upcoming date. (“Yes, it’s happening again,” Ravi tweeted, publicly daring his friends to video chat him at the appointed hour so they could watch the webcam feed.) And if Tyler hadn’t killed himself, the police wouldn’t have investigated, and Ravi probably would have walked away with a room change and a scolding. In this sense, you could argue that New Jersey’s laws are out ahead of what a student like him should have been expected to understand.

But he should have known that it was wrong to expose his roommate in an intimate moment. That’s pretty basic, or at least, it should be. I wrote earlier this week that I had the sinking feeling that Ravi’s behavior was both stupid and criminal. He didn’t give the jury enough reason to spare him. Maybe there was no way to do that once he chose to go to trial, instead of taking some responsibility and admitting some wrongdoing. Now he will surely have more time than he’d like to contemplate all of this, in a prison cell. Sentencing is scheduled for May 21.