‘Hate Crime’ hurdleJoel Reidenberg in New York Post, February 24, 2012
It’s not just what a former Rutgers University student did or didn’t do that’s at issue in his trial on charges he used a Web cam to spy on his roommate’s liaison with another man, just days before the roommate killed himself.
It’s also what he was thinking.
Jury selection was completed yesterday and opening arguments are expected today in Dharun Ravi’s hate-crime trial, which could answer at least some of the questions about the circumstances of a death that sparked a national conversation about the bullying of young gays and the emerging issue of cyberbullying in general.
The case gained widespread attention in September 2010, when Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi, killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge days after the intimate encounter.
Experts following the case say that, like many criminal cases, it seems more complicated than it did at first.
“One of the reasons the politicians jumped in so quickly is that there is a growing national concern over cyberbullying and harassment,” said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University who studies online law.
“This appeared, on first blush, to be a very crystallizing example. It became an opportunity for statements about the problem.”
But, he said, New Jersey’s invasion-of-privacy laws don’t closely match what Ravi is accused of doing. And, he said, the legally important idea that he acted out of bias toward gays is not a slam dunk for prosecutors, given the shards of evidence that have been made public so far.
Ravi, now 19, isn’t charged in connection with 18-year-old Clementi’s death. He is charged with invasion of privacy, hindering apprehension, and tampering with a witness and evidence.
The most serious charges are two counts of bias intimidation, a hate crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
To convict him on those counts, prosecutors will have to convince a jury that Ravi sought to intimidate Clementi because he was gay.
“The question before this jury really is whether this is a college prank that went horribly wrong or really a hate crime where the victim was targeted because of his sexual orientation,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor.