NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.
In a tense and emotional court hearing that lasted for more than four hours, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail on May 21. Reactions to his sentencing were mixed and both sides are reportedly planning to appeal.
Ravi, who was convicted in March of bias intimidation and invading the privacy of Rutgers roommate Tyler Clementi, had faced as many as 10 years in prison and possible deportation to India. The sentence by Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman includes a three-year probation, 300 hours of community service a $10,000 contribution to an organization dedicated to assisting victims of bias crimes. The sentence also requires Ravi to attend counseling on alternative lifestyles and on cyber bullying, but does not recommend deportation. Ravi must begin serving the 30-day jail term beginning May 31.
Before imposing the sentence, Berman sternly addressed Ravi after he chose not to address the court. “I heard this jury say guilty 288 times, and I haven’t heard you apologize once,” Berman said. Yet, he emphasized that he found that Ravi acted not out of hate, but of “colossal insensitivity.”
“This individual was not convicted of a hate crime. He was convicted of a bias crime and there's a difference. I do not believe he hated Tyler Clementi. He had no reason to. But I do believe that he acted out of colossal insensitivity,” the judge said.
In explaining his decision, Berman said he was convinced "the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors" when it comes to the bias counts. As he had at trial, Berman reiterated his problems with the state’s existing bias statute. Referring to the bias law as it relates to Ravi’s actions, Berman said, "the legislature was not envisioning this behavior, regardless of how reprehensible." Of the 39 states that have bias statutes, Berman found that most were for violent behavior. "That’s what I believe the legislature had in mind when they adopted this statute."
As he listened to the judge, Ravi sat wide-eyed, calmer than he had been moments earlier when his sobbing mother begged the court for leniency for her son. Neither the Ravi family nor the Clementis made any comments after the sentencing.
The court proceedings were a bag of mixed emotions - sadness, grief and anger - as both the Ravi and Clementi families read statements addressing the judge to talk of their loss. An emotional Sabitha Ravi, Ravi’s mother, sobbed hard as she said her son has suffered enough. She described him as “kind-hearted and loving” and said he “does not have any hatred in his heart towards anybody.”
“Dharun’s dreams are shattered and he has been living in hell for the past 20 months. As a mother, I feel Dharun has really suffered enough,” she said. “The media was ripping him apart with their misleading facts and wrongful statements of the prominent people, he was absolutely devastated and broken into pieces.”
Her son's only comfort is his younger brother and their dog, Lance. “It breaks my heart,” she said. After she finished her statement, she hugged Ravi, who also was crying, the first time he’s shown his feelings so openly in court. She then sat down next to her husband and sobbed.
Her heart-wrenching appeal had many in the courtroom tearing up as well. Uma Shukla of Parlin, N.J., wiped tears from her eyes, shook her head and turned to her daughter saying, “No one but a mother can understand what she must be going through.”
Shukla later told Desi Talk that she has been following the case from the beginning and attended a May 4 community meeting in Edison, N.J., as well as the May 14 rally outside the statehouse in Trenton to press Ravi's case. “This is something that can happen to anyone and if we do not come together, who will support us?”
Earlier, Ravi’s father, Ravi Pazhani, told the court that his son was not raised to be homophobic. “For the past 20 months, history has been in the making and we have witnessed several chapters of vengeful, malicious, selective prosecution filled with lies and injustice,” he said.
Requesting the judge for a fair sentence, he continued: “Now it is time for the final chapter, honorable judge, we all know you have the power and final say but please show heart today, to make sure the last chapter is all about truth, justice and preserve the sanctity of American judicial system which is widely believed to be the best in the world.”
He too also took issue with media coverage of the trial. “No one cared about the more truthful side of the story because it was not sensational, doesn’t help media ratings, doesn’t give any political mileage doesn’t help advance lobby group’s agenda,” he said.
Clementi’s parents – Jane and Joe Clementi – read statements in court. A lawyer representing M.B., the man who was seeing Tyler Clementi, read a statement on behalf of his client.
Joe Clementi talked about the humiliation his son must have felt when reading Ravi's Twitter posts and said the family is seeking "justice and accountability," not revenge. Jane Clementi 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 her son's fate might have been different had the matter been handled differently at that time. Clementi's brother James wondered if Ravi were “even capable of empathizing with another person.”
In his statement M.B., known only by those initials, said Ravi had caused him "a great deal of pain" and used him, during the trial, as a scapegoat for his invasion of privacy. M.B. said he believed Ravi should serve a time.
Steven Altman, the lead defense attorney, quoted a presentencing 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 in the digital age. Altman said Ravi is “being demonized by the gay community,” that is "associating and connecting whatever he did with the death of Tyler."
Altman said he has tried to keep the trial in perspective, and remembered the first time he met Ravi, and realized he was talking to an 18-year-old college student. “We know it’s not the truth and we can’t get anybody to listen to what the truth is and everything’s just taking off like a rocket ship."
But Assistant Prosecutor Julia McClure disagreed. “He received a fair trial and anyone who says otherwise is just absolutely wrong,” she said. “Incarceration of this defendant is the proper, appropriate punishment and sentence.” McClure said the conviction represents “multiple and diverse acts of criminal conduct. This is not a single, aberrant behavior of this defendant.”
Far from over
Legal experts anticipate an appeal by Ravi's team of the guilty verdict, even as prosecutors for the state may appeal the sentence.
Mark Poirier, a law professor at Seton Hall University, said he was "very impressed" with the judge’s decision and didn’t feel it would be overturned on appeal. "I’m not sure these facts support bias," Poirier told Desi Talk, adding, "Berman did his homework."
According to Poirier, 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.
“A lot of things are open,” Poonam Bhuchar, a Princeton, N.J.-based attorney, who is involved with the Support Dharun Ravi campaign, told Desi Talk. She said the judge handled the sentencing in a very innovative way, “letting common sense prevail.” But at the same time, she acknowledged the possibility of the prosecution filing for an appeal. “That raises the question on whether he will start his sentencing on May 31st,” she said. The Ravi family is happy with the outcome, she said, adding that “it is a good start.”
According to Rutgers Law School professor Louis Raveson, because the bias counts are second-degree crimes, Ravi ordinarily would have been sentenced to prison. “It’s a hard standard to meet," he told The Star-Ledger, adding that “if it wasn’t an injustice on the lesser charges, how could it be an injustice on bias?”
The verdict prompted a mixed reaction from gay advocates, some of whom thought Ravi was being unfairly punished for Clementi’s suicide and should not be imprisoned. One who had called for leniency was gay rights activist Bill Dobbs, who described the short sentence as a “relief.”
“The judge went a long way to take the pressure of an out-of-control prosecution,” Dobbs told Desi Talk.
But Steven Goldstein, CEO of Garden State Equality, who wanted Ravi to serve time, said the sentence was far too short. “This was not merely a childhood prank gone awry. This was not a crime without bias,” Goldstein said in a statement on the group’s website.
David Rogoff, president of the Pride Center in New Jersey, an LGBT community center in Highland Park, N.J., said in a statement that 30 days is not enough time to develop a conscience. “I think the most damning thing I can say about Dharun Ravi he said in his own words. In an interview after the verdict, he said, ‘I wasn't thinking about Tyler.’ There’s no empathy. There’s no remorse.”
Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan also objected to the sentence, according to The Star-Ledger. In a statement, Kaplan said, “While the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office did not request the maximum period of incarceration for Dharun Ravi, it was expected that his conviction on multiple offenses of invading the privacy of two victims on two separate occasions, four counts of bias intimidation against Tyler Clementi, and the cover-up of those crimes, would warrant more than a 30-day jail term. The imposition of this term is insufficient under the sentencing laws of this state, the facts that were determined by a jury, and long-standing appellate precedent. Consequently, this office will appeal the sentence.”
But several Rutgers students and Indian-Americans present at the hearing or those who have been following the case feel Ravi has nothing but remorse.
Neil Patil, a former Rutgers student, who lived in the same dorm as Ravi said the sentencing was fair enough for “Ravi to realize what he did was absolutely wrong.” The Dayton, N.J., resident feels a four-week term in jail is punishment enough and “will stay with him all his life.”
Pradip “Peter” Kothari, an Edison-based businessman and one of the main organizers of the community meeting and rally in support of Ravi, told Desi Talk that Ravi chose not to speak because “anything he would have said could have easily been twisted.” He does feel sorry and has apologized for his actions several times, Kothari said.
But according to The Star-Ledger, Ravi had his reasons for not speaking."Anything I say now would sound rehearsed and empty, and nothing I say is going to make people hate me any less," he told the paper on May 18. "Whatever I say will never change the Clementis' mind about me, or how people see me."
Restaurateur Satish Mehtani, another supporter of Ravi, lauded the judgment and appreciated how community members have rallied around the Ravi family in a show of support.
Dave Makkar of Springfield, N.J., told Desi Talk that he has “mixed feelings” about the case. He noted the anti-bias and hate crime laws of New Jersey are so loose, so vaguely written and a common man cannot interpret them. He feels the judge did the right thing by not invoking the hate crime. He added that there should be a national debate about invasion of privacy issues.
Many acknowledged that Ravi did make a mistake, but did not need to be treated like a criminal. Mona Jain of West Windsor, N.J., said she still finds the verdict hard. “Right from day one I felt he was innocent,” she told Desi Talk. “He was just trying to get settled into college, make friends, understand his roommate.”
Jain said a she has a 17-year-old who goes to the same high school as Ravi did. “We are so new in this country, but we are trying our best to get the best out of the two cultures,” she said. “We do not teach our children any hatred.”
Jayashree Parimeru of Edison, N.J., feels young people should learn a lesson from this case and schools should set in place a policy on how students use electronic media.