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Dharun Ravi, who recently served 20 days in prison for bias intimidation in the Rutgers webcam trial, is appealing his conviction in a move that will help clarify New Jersey’s hate crime laws.
- Ravi acquitted on intent to intimidate, but convicted on Clementi’s perception of intent
- Laws in New Jersey against intimidating a protected class while committing another crime
- Hate crime laws vary by state
Appeals all Around
Ravi found himself the subject of infamy after he viewed on a webcam images of Tyler Clementi, his freshman roommate at Rutgers University, during a romantic encounter with another man. Clementi saw Ravi’s twitter feed that advertised his liaison, and shortly thereafter committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
Ravi was found guilty in March of invading Clementi’s privacy, a conviction that usually would not have carried a jail term if it wasn’t accompanied by a bias intimidation charge. He was sentenced to 30 days behind bars, three years probation, 300 hours community service and counseling programs for bullying and alternative lifestyles.
Though Ravi has already completed his jail term, getting out 10 days early for work credit and good behaviour, both the prosecution and defence are appealing the sentence. The prosecution is arguing that the sentence was too lenient, while Ravi’s attorneys have not yet indicated exactly why they are challenging his conviction as unconstitutional.
The former student’s trial and conviction were controversial from the start, and the appeals will help bring definition as to exactly how and when the state’s bias intimidation laws can be applied.
Intent to Intimidate?
New Jersey’s bias intimidation law, which carries penalties of up to 10 years in prison, comes into play when a person commits a crime against another with intent to intimidate based on race, colour, religion, gender, handicap, sexual orientation or ethnicity.
The original crime can range from simple harassment via electronic or other means all the way to assault or murder.
“The first element that’s spelled out is it has to be with a purpose to intimidate an individual or group,” says Adam Rosenblum, a criminal defence attorney who practices in New Jersey. “Other alternatives are knowing that a group could be intimidated, or reasonably believed that the offence was committed with intent to intimidate.”
Unless a defendant comes straight out and says the harassment is based on orientation or other protected status, it’s up to juries to decide to what extent intent to intimidate is involved. “For the most part it has to be inferred,” says Rosenblum. “It could be known by virtue of a person’s actions that they’re a hater. A person that participates in anti-gay rallies or a member of the Ku Klux Klan or something, that has gone on record that they have a particular type of desire to intimidate these particular classes.”
What’s unique about the webcam case is the jury found that Ravi had no intent to intimidate Clementi based on his sexual orientation; however, they convicted Ravi on several counts based on their interpretation that Clementi might reasonably have believed that his roommate was trying to intimidate him.
“What makes for a very controversial verdict in this case is that you have this new concept that has been born of this whole thing,” says Rosenblum. “The jury found him guilty based on the fact that the victim believed or perceived that the defendant acted with purpose to intimidate him as a homosexual person. And if you look at the evidence, evidence was very thin on that.”
Laws Evolving Nationwide
Hate crime laws have existed in some form for decades, and have broadened to specifically protect LGBT Americans in more recent years. President Obama expanded federal hate crime laws in 2009, criminalizing assault based on someone’s orientation or gender identity. In 2010, law enforcement agencies nationwide reported 6,628 hate crimes to the Department of Justice, with 19.3 per cent based on sexual orientation.
State laws vary widely; the Anti-Defamation League maintains a website with information on hate crime laws by state. Complicating matters more, laws are still evolving, especially with new media and technology that provide attackers novel ways to harass and intimidate their victims. New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale has indicated he might update and clarify the state law in light of the questions brought by the webcam trial.
The Rutgers case has already been hailed as an important test of what a hate crime is and how far the law can go in New Jersey. With the appeal, the state will have to further determine whether it must be proved that a defendant intended to intimidate someone to be guilty of bias intimidation, or whether the victim must merely have felt intimidated regardless of the defendant’s intentions.
“We need to wait until the appellate courts rule,” Rosenblum says. “We really have to take the wait and see approach and see what the courts are going to do with this one.”
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