The judge handed down the sentence in the Dahrun Ravi case today. For his conviction on witness- and evidence-tampering and lying to the police, Ravi will serve 30 days in jail. For the hate crimes charge and sentence enhancement, Ravi was sentenced to three years’ probation, 300 hours of community service, counseling on cyber bullying and alternative lifestyles, and payment of $11,000 to a group that helps victims of bias crimes. The judge included a recommendation to immigration authorities that the defendant, an Indian citizen who came to the United States as a child, not be deported. The judge made fairly clear his thinking. Before announcing the sentence, the judge said that he did not believe that the defendant hated Tyler Clementi but rather that he “acted out of colossal insensitivity.” To the defendant, the judge said: “You lied to your roommate who placed his trust in you without any conditions, and you violated it. I haven’t heard you apologize once.” He emphasized the defendant’s attempt to “corrupt the justice system” by tampering with evidence and witnesses. The judge explained that he took factors including Ravi’s youth and his lack of a criminal record into consideration.
Before the sentencing, many (including me) worried about a sentence that straddled the extremes. An unduly harsh sentence might produce a backlash against using hate crime laws in instances of bigoted online harassment (including threats, privacy invasions, etc.) while an unduly light sentence would trivialize what happened to the victim, the public shaming of his sexuality and bias intimidation. We have fallen into the latter zone. The defendant received a sentence of probation and counseling on the hate crime that he thrice rejected in plea offerings by the prosecutor. To make matters worse, the judge repudiated the jury’s conviction on the hate crime count when he characterized the defendant as insensitive, not bigoted. Even so, all is not lost. The sentence and conviction do say something important. They make clear that engaging in online harassment and shaming of individuals from traditionally subordinated groups has a cost. The sentence is not something to shrug at: the defendant has a criminal record for a hate crime with three years’ probation (even though he might have been sentenced to far more than that, ten years). To young people interested in bright futures, this is worth avoiding. Viewed at a distance, the case teaches us that juries will take similar cases seriously. It does not and should not say that such cases are easy and uncomplicated. They are hard and deservedly belong in the public eye. That this case made it into court with a conviction makes a difference.