Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Merciful end to a tragic case rooted in lack of empathy

Judge Glenn Berman was about as merciful as he could have been Monday in sentencing Dharun Ravi, the 20-year-old former Rutgers student convicted of spying on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, with a webcam a few days before Clementi committed suicide in September 2010.
The judge sentenced Ravi to 30 days in jail, as part of three years of probation. Ravi also got 300 hours of community service and was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine. Given what he did, how he has handled himself, and the maximum sentence he was facing — 10 years in prison — Ravi should consider himself lucky. Very, very lucky.

Dharun Ravi received a sentence of 30 days in jail and three years probation for spying on his gay roommate and posting images of him kissing a man. The roommate committed suicide days later. MEL EVANS

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It was an emotional morning in court. Everyone who spoke — the judge, the lawyers, the families of Clementi and Ravi — wrestled with the terrible weight of Clementi's death, and the extent to which it was caused by Ravi's callous and cruel decision to spy on Clementi while he had a date with a man (known as M.B. through the trial) in the room Clementi and Ravi shared at Rutgers.

I felt my heart pulled by both families. Clementi's father told the judge, "It's hard for me to imagine the humiliation he felt from having someone film his most intimate moments." He mentioned how often Clementi checked the Twitter page where Ravi braggingly posted his spying plans as evidence of how disturbed his son was by his roommate's salacious bid for attention. Clementi's brother James said, "Tyler's final days and hours were filled with fear, shame and a despair so great it ripped him away from me forever."

Ravi's parents, on the other hand, denied any link between their son's actions and Clementi's death. Ravi's father, Ravi Pazhani, said his son harbored no prejudice toward gay people — the underlying rationale for the bias conviction that was the reason Ravi faced multiple years in prison. That seemed like an understandable defensive note to strike; less so was Pazhani's angry tone and comments lashing out at "the vengeful, malicious, selective prosecution."

But I began to see why Pazhani felt he too had a right to be angry when he ended by saying, "I have never felt so powerless in my life." And Ravi's mother, Sabitha, weepingly recounted the effect of the mass condemnation of her son. "It all started with the media ripping him apart," she said. "He was devastated and broken into pieces ... as a mother I feel that Dharun has really suffered enough from the past two years."

Ravi cried while she spoke, but he chose not to explain himself Monday. In two interviews after his conviction, he said he was sorry, but his insistence that he acted without any anti-gay feelings at all just wasn't plausible. Ravi said he turned on his camera only because the man Clementi invited to the room, M.B., looked "strange." I don't buy it. More believable, but not especially sympathetic, was Ravi's response to the question "What were you thinking?" He answered, "I wasn't," adding, "I got caught up in what I thought was funny, and my own ego."

I've been opposed to Ravi serving prison time — not because I condone what he did, but because a harsh sentence seemed out of proportion given the stupid and jerky aspect of the invasion of privacy he committed. But I wish he'd given a self-aware and mature accounting of himself. By acknowledging, at least, that he can understand why it's wrong and hurtful to spy and send a titillated tweet like "I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

I wanted some showing from Ravi, in other words, that he has grown up. Instead, he stayed silent, and his letter to the court, asking for leniency, was "unimpressive," as Berman put it.
The judge faulted Ravi's lack of remorse and humility and said, "You can't expunge the misconduct and the pain you have caused." But Berman rightly found that Ravi is probably not at risk to commit another similar offense. He took into account Ravi's age — 18 at the time of the spying — and his previously clean record. He said that Ravi didn't contemplate the harm his misconduct would cause.
And he correctly pointed out that in the New Jersey cases in which a conviction for a bias crime has led to a long prison sentence, the bias was related to a crime of violence.

The saddest aspect of this case remains the missed chance Ravi and Clementi had to connect in the few weeks they knew each other. Ravi had learned via online that Clementi was gay before school begun. Jane Clementi recounted that when she and her husband arrived with their son on the first day of school, the family walked into his new room to find Ravi already ensconced at his computer. "No greeting, no smile, no recognition, no nothing," she said. Ravi's parents had to prompt him to acknowledge them.

To Clementi's mother, in retrospect, the encounter was proof that Ravi had written off her son. It's that act of turning away, with its lack of empathy and compassion, that will continue to haunt us. As it should.

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