Why Dharun Ravi got 30 days in jail in Rutgers webcam spying case

Dharun Ravi committed 'reprehensible' acts in setting up a webcam to spy on his Rutgers roommate's gay relationship, but they did not reach the level of a hate crime, the judge said.

Lee Celano/REUTERS
Dharun Ravi stands alone in a New Brunswick, N.J., courtroom Monday following a sentencing hearing for his conviction in using a webcam to invade the privacy of his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man in their college dorm room.

A former Rutgers University student was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail in a case of webcam spying that drew national attention to issues of online privacy, suicide, and antigay bullying.

Dharun Ravi was also sentenced to do 300 hours of community service and pay $10,000 to assist bias-crime victims.

With Mr. Ravi facing the possibility of 10 years in prison and even deportation to his native India, the sentence was lighter than some legal analysts expected.

The case isn't over. Legal experts anticipate an appeal by Ravi of the guilty verdict, even as prosecutors for the state of New Jersey may appeal the sentence.

But already, the case has served as a showcase for the nation of the risks that arise when young people use social media as an integral part of their lives, sometimes with little thought about the potential toll on others, or the potential legal consequences. 

The case involved Ravi's use of a dorm-room webcam to spy on his roommate's gay relationship while the two were freshman at Rutgers in the fall of 2010. The incident became a nationwide symbol of digital-age bullying because it involved Ravi's text messages to friends and his public Twitter updates, and because the roommate committed suicide a few days later.

Ravi was not charged with causing the death of Tyler Clementi, his roommate. But a jury this year found Ravi guilty of 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy, "bias intimidation," and obstructing justice after police began investigating.

Judge Glenn Berman opted for a middle-ground sentence, issuing what he said were serious punishments for serious crimes, but stopping short of a lengthy prison term.

Perhaps central to the relatively light 30-day jail time was this: Judge Berman made a point of noting that Ravi's actions, however reprehensible, were not violent and that neither he nor the prosecution was using the term "hate crime" to describe them.

"I do not believe [the legislature] envisioned this type of behavior" when it passed the anti-bias statute at the heart of the case, Berman said.

Berman said he would recommend against deportation for Ravi, who has Indian citizenship although he has lived most of his life in America. The judge noted that his stance was aligned with the view of one of the victims in the case. The man known in the trial as "M.B.," whose privacy was violated along with Mr. Clementi's, provided a statement opposing the idea of deporting Ravi for his offenses.

Ravi chose not to speak prior to his sentencing.

The judge, addressing Ravi, said "I haven't heard you apologize," and he said in a pre-sentencing letter Ravi had apologized to Tyler Clementi and the Clementi family, but had not mentioned M.B. or the guilty verdicts regarding corruption of the judicial process. The jury found Ravi guilty of witness tampering, lying to police, and deleting text messages and Twitter posts.

Some advocates against bias crimes said Ravi's sentence was too light.

"We opposed throwing the book at Dharun Ravi," Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality said in a statement Monday. "But we have similarly rejected the other extreme that Ravi should have gotten no jail time at all, and today’s sentencing is closer to that extreme than the other. This was not merely a childhood prank gone awry. This was not a crime without bias."

Berman allowed statements by family members before he pronounced the sentence. Family members on both sides of the case poured out some of the emotions that have weighed on them during the past two years as the legal case has proceeded.

M.B., in a statement read in court by an attorney, said Ravi had caused him "a great deal of pain" and used him, during the trial, as a scapegoat for his invasion of privacy. (Ravi's defense said Ravi set up remote access to his webcam in part to guard against the risk of theft by a stranger.) M.B. said he believed Ravi should serve a time in confinement as part of his penalty.

Clementi's father talked about the humiliation his son must have felt when reading Ravi's public Twitter posts. (In one tweet, Ravi said “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”) Clementi's father said the family is seeking "justice and accountability," not revenge.
Clementi's mother described how her son went to a resident adviser to request a change of rooms and reported Ravi's use of the webcam. She questioned why the matter was not immediately reported to police, and whether the fate of her son might have been different had the matter been handled differently at that time. One of Clementi's brothers also spoke.

On the defense side, Ravi wept as his mother, sitting next to him, told the court about the toll the case had taken on her son. She described him losing weight, eating just one meal a day, and withdrawing from social contacts amid the high-profile case. She said he has a burden to face "for the rest of his life," and asked for a sentence that gave him a chance to live a normal life.

Ravi's mother hugged him after finishing her statement.

The legal case revolved largely around two nights in September 2010, when Clementi asked for privacy in the room that he and Ravi shared. 

On Sept. 19, the first occasion, Ravi went to a friend's room where he turned on his webcam remotely. He and the friend saw Clementi and M.B. kissing. On the second night, Sept. 21, Ravi posted an message daring friends to log in to his webcam remotely.

Ravi himself was at a Frisbee practice when M.B. visited Clementi that night, and no web video was broadcast. But the prosecution argued that Ravi intended to invade Clementi's privacy that night, and was thwarted only because Clementi turned Ravi's computer off.

Steven Altman, the lead defense attorney, quoted a pre-sentencing probation report about Ravi, which described him as lacking in forethought about how his actions might affect Clementi. The report said "this case speaks loudly to the desensitization the youth of this country are experiencing," as they socialize about their lives in the digital age. 

Berman's sentence included a call for Ravi to attend counseling on alternative lifestyles and on cyberbullying.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.