Free Dharun Ravi: Fairness vs. Justice

I was naive I suppose.  I really thought that the jury, upon hearing all the detail that the mass consuming public was not privy to, would acquit Dharun Ravi on all charges, regardless of the fact the prosecutor seemed to be cleverly boxing them in to a particular outcome, armed with ambiguous law.  At a minimum I thought the major charges, including the “hate crime,” would be hard to deliberate on, possibly resulting in a mistrial.   The comprehensive NewYorker article last month showed that the case, far from being what the media initially portrayed, was full of twists, conflicting behavior, and most importantly I believed, reasonable doubt.  A few years back I watched the absolutely brilliant 8-part documentary The Staircase (now apparently free online), about the murder trial of a bisexual man in North Carolina.  It forever changed my view of highly publicized trials in America.  They seldom have anything at all to do with justice.  Everyone involved is a victim.  More recently, we saw a miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis three.  Ravi’s trial result should not have surprised me.

Ravi is an immature, upper middle class kid and a “casual homophobe” (more on  that term later) but he is not a perpetrator of a hate crime.  To consider him more than marginally complicit in the death of Tyler Clementi hurts two groups: victims of true hate crimes and the mental health community.

First off, I reject the mostly Right Wing assertion that we should banish the term “hate crime” from our legal system.  ”Aren’t all crimes hate crimes” they argue?  Such arguments are specious an predicated on the belief that political correctedness is the only reason such a label exists.  Bullshit.  When a man has a chain put around his ankles and is dragged behind a car because he is black, that’s a hate crime.  When a Sikh man is shot for being a “Muslim terrorist“, that’s a hate crime.  When a gay man is tied to a fence and tortured, that’s a hate crime.  Being stupid while you are coming of age and meeting people with different backgrounds than you?  Not a hate crime.  Most crimes are committed because of anger, greed, jealousy, or mental illness.  A hate crime is different.  It is often very violent and there is rarely a personal gain.  The crime is committed as an act of domination or intimidation, often based on unjustified fear.  Nothing about Dharun Ravi’s behavior, as evinced by texts, emails, tweets, and witnesses shows even an inkling of such a motive.  One could argue he was more uncomfortable with Clementi’s socio-economic status than his sexuality!  He was also uncomfortable about an older man, a stranger, coming into his room and having sex.  Many of us may have reacted poorly in such an instance.  What opponents of the term “hate crime” get right however, is that the laws are sometimes so ambiguous that a clever prosecution can convince a jury that a wide variety of crimes meet the legal definition of a “hate crime” and that they have to convict based on the definition alone, regardless of common sense.  We have seen “terrorism” laws abused in this same way.  I would not be at all surprised if Ravi’s case someday reaches the Supreme Court for this very reason.

I consider Ravi a “casual homophobe.”  He, like many of us, especially when we were younger, may loosely throw around the word “fag” or an occasional “you’re so ghey” without thinking twice.  As he gets older he will think about it more, just like many of us may have.  First generation South Asian American households are not the greatest environments to be raised socially conscious in.  With age he may have checked himself and seen that words can hurt like weapons.  Becoming popular with friends by poking fun at others would stop being as cool as it once was. We’ll never know now cause he just got Shawshanked.  He may even be deported.

Now, about the second major issue this jury may not have appreciated enough in terms of considering the applicability of some of the bias intimidation charges:  Nobody ever commits suicide because of a single reason.  Any mental health professional or suicide prevention counselor will tell you that you can’t go from perfectly happy to suicide in the matter of days.  Being watched shirtless on a webcam with another man for two seconds did not alone intimidate Clementi into killing himself.  I fear this ruling sends a message that suicide is clean and simple to understand.  ”A” leads to “B.”  Just punish “A” and there will be no “B.”  Simple.  Why do we need to invest in mental health or provide resources for gay teens coming of age?  Let’s just make it a crime to be an asshole.  Most importantly, Ravi’s defense team was barred from accessing Clementi’s computer files or a note left in his backpack.  There they may have found the evidence they needed to demonstrate that Clementi’s state of mind was complicated and impacted by a lot more than boorish behavior by a freshman year roommate.

Speculating for a second it seems like the jury, like much of modern society, was more interested in being fair (and in sticking to the prosecution’s interpretation of the law) than in being just.  It is sad that Clementi was troubled.  It is even more tragic that he took his life.  I get the impression that the jury sought to punish Ravi because they felt bad about Clementi and his family’s situation rather than being motivated by the need for meting out dispassionate justice.  As a society, when we punish “bad thought” (especially in the young) and blur the line between it and “bad action,” we not only risk censorship but we push real ignorance or bigotry under the rug without dealing with it.  Now, more than ever, we have become a society that favors punishment over rehabilitation.  It is telling that the prosecution offered Ravi a plea bargain consisting of only community service…but a jury of his “peers” goaded by that same prosecution then threw the book at him after he refused to admit guilt.

“This was very difficult, but it was a really good experience. You feel like justice has been served,” he said.


He said decisions on the charges of witness tampering, evidence tampering and invasion of privacy were “easy” and “cut and dry,” but the deliberations on the bias charges were more difficult. He estimated the panel deliberated for much more than one hour on the bias charges, but would not say how long.


“You can’t know what someone’s thinking. You have to get inside their head,” he said. “Afterwards, you think about it not being done once, but being done twice another day. That’s why we came to that conclusion.” He also said he hopes the verdict will bring some peace to the families.


“I hope they can put everything behind them and move forward,” he said. “Hopefully, they finally have closure.” [Link]


Ravi’s team will appeal but his life is destroyed now.  In America you can be 14 and put away for life.  You can be 18 and be jailed for being immature and insensitive.  Everyone lost in this episode.  Especially justice.

It is fitting that Tyler Clementi’s dad basically paraphrased Gandhi at the end of the day, maybe without even knowing it:

To our college, high school and even middle-school youngsters, I would say this: You’re going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime. Some of these people you may not like. But just because you don’t like them, does not mean you have to work against them. When you see somebody doing something wrong, tell them, “That’s not right. Stop it.”


You can make the world a better place. The change you want to see in the world begins with you. [Link]

89 thoughts on “Free Dharun Ravi: Fairness vs. Justice

  1. Ravi’s family has created an online petition asking the Obama administration to “(a)ddress the fact that media is driving (the) (j)ustice (s)ystem’s decisions” and stating that “Dharun Ravi is NOT Biased.” The petition has more than 4,500 signatures.

  2. “casual homophobe” huh? yeah, hatred and bigotry is so nuanced. “casual racists” may have problems with minorities, but that’s okay, ’cause it’s “casual.” you’re seriously minimizing homophobia by grading it? so, because he wasn’t picketing with westboro, it’s fine? srsly? you should be ashamed.

  3. The kind of bullying where the accused is guilty of causing death by suicide is the type where the accused knows how terribly his roommate is feeling about getting exposed and it has to be some kind of series of actions. IN this case, Dharun seems to get his jollies off in his own world. He has no idea that his roommate knows he is filming him. This is different from the cases where a couple of high school girls committed suicide because they were subject to aggressive ongoing taunts from not only their classmates but some of the classmates parents. Those people knew these kids were suffering directly and still perpetuated because they wanted to see the kids suffer in front of their eyes. That is the kind of bullying that is more criminal , in my mind. In the case of Dharun, his crime is his invasion of privacy, which he supposedly was suspected of doing to his own camp female friend prior to their college admission. So I do think he needs to be punished but not for causing the suicide.

  4. ^^^ Excellent observation, Pravin. This was not malicious or vicious at all. I have pointed out before, that many ethnic Indians were victims of racist/racialistic bullying in Canada in the 70′s and 80′s. And yet, there is not a single recorded case of suicide, and nothing I personally know about. Tyler Clementi was simply not a strong person to do what he did. Ethnic Indians endured repeated taunts, slurs, put-downs and ridicule for years, and they endured and survived.

    • I suspect that the suicide rate among Indo-Americans is seriously masked and underreported. I know of several that have taken place in my mid-sized city over the past 10 years or so. Yes, “several.” Of teenagers who came from stereotypically well-educated, high income families, in some cases. These suicides are never talked about.

      The suggestion that tormented gays should just suck it up and move on, because that’s what tormented Indo-Americans have always done, has a very dubious factual premise.

  5. Varun, I respectfully disagree with your comment. Assuming that those who commit suicide are “weak” or that we Desis are strong because we have not committed suicide due to racism is completely missing the point. It is not TYLER’s fault that Dharun Ravi is in this situation. In fact, India is only 2 ranks behind the US in terms of suicide rates, and lets not forget that stigma about mental illness in general prevents many Indians from ever reporting or acknowledging the realities of depression and suicidality in their community. The data regarding Indians with depression or suicide needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    He is not and should not be held responsible for Tyler’s suicide. Suicide is far more complicated and while there are often triggering events, individuals who commit suicide have usually been depressed and have considered it before. I also agree that the media has demonized Dharun and martyred Tyler, the fragile, shy violinist who was questioning his sexuality, and Dharun has been portrayed, perhaps somewhat unfairly, as the privileged jerk.

    Despite this, what stands out most to me across this trial is that NOTHING Dharun has said indicates the slightest amount of empathy, compassion and most importantly, contrition. He defends himself as the victim of media skewering, intentionally obfuscating the issues by shifting the topic to “the murkiness of cyber-bullying” and away from the thoughtless that comes with videotaping somebody doing ANYTHING in the privacy of their room. It may not have been a pre-meditative violent hate crime, but Tyler’s sexuality was certainly relevant-would Ravi would have bothered to do this if Tyler was bringing hot chicks home every night? If Dharun had videotaped Tyler jerking off and broadcast it online and tweeted about it–it STILL would have been an invasion of privacy, and it would STILL have been a shitty thing to do.

    We all, myself included, have to be aware of our propensity to defend/understand Dharun, as a fellow Desi. But he is unquestionably guilty of invasion of privacy and of evidence tampering. The fact he went back and deleted tweets and facebook posts demonstrates his awareness that some of what he said may be used against him, implying that he was aware of his own questionable behavior. There has been so much emphasis about how Dharun is not a bigot, but no discussion about what Dharun IS, which is a thoughtless insensitive asshole, and we should be soul-searching and figuring out how we can raise children to not only be “not bigoted” but here’s a novel idea, to be NICE!

    As a community my hope is that this will be a lesson for our parents, brothers and sisters to learn that promoting an environment of compassion and tolerance is ultimately more important than status and achievement. In this country, there are pockets of the Indian community that have sadly lost sight of that. Dharun’s parents have said nothing, and more importantly have said nothing to Tyler’s parents, even so little as offering condolences. Having gone to high school up in a town near Dharun, with parents from the same region of India as Dharun, this case hit very close to home for me. The Central NJ Indian community is deeply insular, and most of the Indian kids I grew up with are full of “casually” bigoted comments about people who are unlike them (most notably, about “white people”, a kind of defensive reverse racism), and very few of them even have friends who are not Indian, let alone friends who are white, gay and lower middle class like Tyler. Exposure to people who are different from you promotes understanding and tolerance, and insularity promotes xenophobia.

    It’s time for our community to examine the negative effects of “pseudo acculturation” where we attempt to emulate western models of success while clinging to old-world intolerance.

    Here endeth the diatribe :)

  6. These are my thoughts as a Chinese American, a lesbian, and a law student.

    I think the response from gay celebrities belied an undercurrent of casual racism and cultural imperialism, a sense that Western cultural values are “best” and must be protected from the contaminating influence of Other cultures. Casual racism is a real problem in the LGBT community. I’ve been told by other gay people that Asians are not a “real” minority, and that I’m intelligible as a lesbian because I don’t do the “whole Asian girl thing.” (I can only assume this means they associate Asian women with hyper-femininity because my gender presentation is already femme.) Unfortunately, the Dharun Ravi trial hasn’t triggered much reflection among the LGBT community about ways in which we casually trade in racial and ethnic stereotypes. I want to point out that Tyler Clementi wasn’t innocent of this either — he told his friend something to the effect that Dharun’s parents looked fobby and probably owned a Dunkin Donuts.

    There is an understandable amount of anger and frustration on this thread about the “special” protection given to gay people, while Dharun gets his name dragged through the mud. And while I think it’s arbitrary and capricious to enforce rights for one minority at the expense of another minority, I hope this unfortunate outcome will not pit the Desi and LGBT communities against each other! As a gay Asian woman in the legal profession, I am very conscious of the structural barriers I encounter due to each minority group that I belong to. These minority identities are ALL part of me. And I think the common point of inertia that gays, Desis, women, Blacks, transpeople, etc. are struggling against is the upper-middle class White Christian establishment with values from the 1950s. We are all struggling for inclusion in a “New Normal”, where we’re not constantly reminded of our departures from an invisible baseline, where our race or gender or sexuality or religion can be as much of a non-issue as it currently is for Straight white Christian males.

    Finally, while I think Dharun acted insensitively and with reckless disregard for his potential to destroy his roommate’s social life, I do think Dharun was the scapegoat for America’s collective guilt over its history of discrimination against LGBT people. There was a time not too long ago where you could murder a gay man for making a pass at you and get off scot-free on the “gay panic defense.” Sure, there were anti-discrimination laws beginning in the 80s and 90s, but gay sex was a crime only 9 years ago. More significantly I think, only recently have gays become people not just to be “tolerated”, but people to be accepted and valued for our contributions. So I think America (and especially the legal system, which tends to be conservative and to lag behind popular opinion) is grappling with this history and over-compensating in its handling of the Dharun Ravi trial. Ultimately, I think Dharun will be vindicated. His story will be told. He will discover his own compelling voice, and hopefully bridges will be built. It will just take time. And effort.

    • thank you for such an articulate analysis, gayasianinamerica. dharun was certainly scapegoated, and i also hope that we dont lose touch of our collective struggle to define our own identities. i’ve wondered a lot about this case if what made dharun so unrelatable/easy to dehumanize was not that he was Desi, but that he was “the 1%”, upper middle class and financially coddled, drove a BMW in high school and traded casual barbs with friends about his distaste for the poor. despite being a minority, Dharun did not appear a vulnerable minority, and his lack of contrition and defensiveness didn’t help. its interesting that you say this case has not prompted too much reflection in the lgbt community. i think the fear that some people have is that in lgbt community you can always “play the gay card”, and in doing so, the real story will never be told.

  7. ” Central NJ Indian community is deeply insular, and most of the Indian kids I grew up with are full of “casually” bigoted comments about people who are unlike them (most notably, about “white people”, a kind of defensive reverse racism), and very few of them even have friends who are not Indian, let alone friends who are white, gay and lower middle class like Tyler. Exposure to people who are different from you promotes understanding and tolerance, and insularity promotes xenophobia.”

    On this point, you are really asking for the moon. How many Americans, particularly ethnic Americans from, say, Poland, Ukraine, Brazil, Puerto Rico or Philippines, have friends outside their community, and moreover, friends who are gay AND from a different class background. Don’t expect ultra-idealism and angelic behaviour from Desis. It’s not fair to them(us).

    • i agree varun, its a lot to ask. insularity is a problem among all groups. i don’t think we can change all of that on a broad level, certainly not overnight. but it is ABSOLUTELY possible to have friends outside of your communities, and there are those of us who do it from all groups. being desi is one component of our identities, it is not the only thread that can link us to others.

      the challenge with immigrant communities lies when there is a large concentration in a small space, like central nj, where its just EASY to mingle with people like you. there’s no reason to branch out when there’s dozens of Desis everywhere, even in public school and that kind of thing happens with all groups.

      but i do not think it is “asking for the moon” to encourage people to push their own limits and be open to those who are different from them.

      the painful component of the dharun ravi case is as i said before, the focus on the fact that “he’s not a bigot”, but what about the fact that when confronted with something that confused him, his reaction was rejecting & fearful, and he acted in a way to directly humiliate or shame somebody else. to me that is directly related to being raised in a relatively closed environment with little exposure to people who are different from him. i dont think this only happens in desi communities, im just saying that overall insularity and narrowness of experience contributes to the problem at large.

  8. Good and thoughtful comment GaysianInAmerica. Yes, let’s hope this incident does not set the Asian, including Desi, and LGBT communities against one another based on some crazy idea that the Asian culture is inherently opposed to the LGBT one. Sensible, sober voices need to be heard and to prevail.

  9. Couldn’t agree more with you, S R. I’ve seen this too in my local desi community.

  10. The problem with ‘hate crimes’ is not that bigotry is not-different from other motivations (like greed, envy, etc as you mentioned) but that the prosecution has wide leeway in application of particular statutes and ONLY POLITICALLY CORRECT GROUPS benefit from these laws, and the Dharun Ravi case is a perfect case in point. Every year in America there are many assaults on white and asian people by some young black males where explicitly racial comments are made and they never make it into NYTimes, and are never discussed at nauseating PC sites like this one here. Everyone has heard of the fake Duke Lacrosse case, and the Tawana Brawley hoax, but do you hear of the thousands of murders of whites by blacks that are documented by the FBI? Or the Rapes? Of course most of them may not be ‘hate crimes’ but a lot of them are. But sites like these are explicitly racial. You are just fighting to be another ethnic block, organizing against the majority of the country. There is no justice nor fairness. It’s ethnic competition. All discussions such as the Ravi case are put in the context of a “minority vs minority” straightjacket. Oh noez lets not break our unityz! Minorities stick togethahh! Right. Against whom? White people right? So why pretend to be “fair” or “universal”? Admit you are an ethnic block and, further, you have swallowed the entire PC cannon. Now that teh gheys are on top of the hierarchy of “oppressed peoples”, the browniez are howling. Heh.

    • First of all, dear ‘Contemplationist’, if PC sites like this bother you so much why waste your time visiting them? And we Do admit we’re an ethnic block – the fact that this blog site is named ‘Sepia Mutiny’ in a direct allusion to the classic incident ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ that happened in India against British rule should have been a giveaway to you! What’s wrong with uniting to consolidate ourselves against the majority? I mean, it’s not like we’re going to kill you all and steal your land which is what YOU did to the native Americans when you first came here now, did you?

      You yourself ADMIT there’s no justice or fairness, so why so defensive against minorities that stick together? Against whites? Umm, of course since YOU are the majority now, aren’t you? For someone who enjoys s much power, you sure do whine a lot as if you’re some victim of sorts, don’t you? If your rules and ways of dealing with minorities wasn’t biased against us – you’d actually have a reason to rant against us – c’mon dude, you guy don’t even play black musicians on Rock radio stations while black stations WILL play white artists who rap so quit playing the ‘PC canon’ card – start actually behaving impartially and treat others fairly and maybe you’ll actually have a point about us ‘swallowing the PC cannon’ then. Oh, and your ‘the browniez are howling’ bit said more about YOU than anything else you posted.

      P.S. For the record – there is NO confusion to my opinion – Dharun Ravi is a voyeuristic jerk who deserves ALL the punishment he gets. It’s amazing that someone who claims to be ‘homophobic’ will videotape a gay dude having sex – I mean, isn’t he supposed to be turned off by that sort of thing?!! Sounds to me like the court isn’t the only thing he’s trying to fool – and the biggest fool is the man who fools himself ……

  11. The big problem with hate crimes is externalities, just as it is with crimes that clearly target certain kinds of people (eg a serial killer with an MO that targets black prostitutes, or a purse snatcher that targets old ladies in an immigrant neighborhood). The externality is the fear and terror that it creates in the mind of all people who share those characteristics. It is not only PC-ness, but allows societal control and bullying of the target group. Imagine the social codes of the South and how brutality undergirded the everyday conduct of the people. Hate crimes have an effect on the target group, that can potentially change a population’s behavior and everyday conduct. Remember that quote from Brokeback Mountain, where Ennis Del Mar is recalling seeing the horrific fate of a murdered gay man:

    “My daddy, he made sure me and brother seen it. Hell for all I know, he done the job.”

    Bias intimidation turns on whether concludes that Clementi “reasonably believed” DR was trying to intimidate him. It is a close case factually–could have gone either way with the jury. As for the other crime, he did spy or try to spy on TC. There is no reason to believe that this is an ordinary prank. If you knew your child’s roommate was taping him during intimate acts and inviting others to watch it, would you be so sympathetic? This is not a typical college prank that one feels compelled to give DR the benefit of the doubt. He was given an exceptionally generous plea bargain (I speak that as someone with both prosecution and defense experience). He should have taken it.