A former university student from India who used a webcam to spy on his gay roommate, has been sentenced to 30 days in jail, just a fraction of the maximum.
The case has focused attention on anti-gay bullying, teen suicide and hate-crime laws in the fast-changing internet age.
Dharun Ravi, 20, was placed on three years’ probation on Monday for his part in an episode that burst onto the front pages after his roommate, Tyler Clementi, threw himself to his death off a landmark bridge into New York City.
Both were students at Rutgers University in the state of New Jersey.
After the suicide, gay-rights and anti-bullying activists held up Clementi as an example of the consequences of bullying young gays. President Barack Obama himself spoke about the tragedy.
“Our society has every right to expect zero tolerance for intolerance,” Judge Glenn Berman said in imposing far less than the maximum, 10 years behind bars.
In addition, Ravi was ordered to get counseling and pay $10,000 toward a programme to help victims of hate crimes.
The judge said he would not recommend Ravi be deported to India, where he was born and remains a citizen.
The New Jersey gay rights organisation Garden State Equality expressed disappointment with the punishment.
In a statement, chairman Steven Goldstein said that while the maximum would have been too much, the 30-day sentence was close to the other possible extreme, no prison time at all.
“This was not merely a childhood prank gone awry. This was not a crime without bias,” Goldstein said.
Prosecutors had asked that Ravi be sent to prison, but they did not say how much time he should get, other than that it did not have to be the maximum.
Ravi, his family and his lawyers left the courthouse without comment.
Prosecutors told the judge they are considering appealing the sentence, but they had no immediate comment outside court.
The case began in September 2010 when Ravi’s randomly assignedfreshman-year roommate asked Ravi for the room alone so that he and guest could have privacy.
Ravi went to a friend’s room and turned on his webcam remotely, and they saw Clementi and his guest kissing. They told others about it through instant messages and tweets, with Ravi tweeting: “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”
When Clementi asked for privacy again two days later, Ravi agreed, then told friends how to access his webcam.
But this time, the camera was not on when the guest came over. There was testimony both that Clementi unplugged it and that Ravi himself put it to sleep.
The next night, Clementi – who had learned he had been spied on – committed suicide at age 18, leaving behind a final Facebook update: “jumping off the GW [George Washington] bridge, sorry”.
In handing down the sentence, the judge told Ravi that while someone might argue the first spying attempt was a foolish prank, “You cannot make or milk that argument a second time”.
The judge also berated Ravi for deleting scores of text messages and tweets and trying to influence a witness. At the same time, Berman noted that Ravi has spent the past 20 months in what the judge called “exile” since his arrest.
‘Does not get it’
Ravi did not speak at his sentencing. But his mother, Sabitha Ravi, told the judge her son “doesn’t have any hatred in his heart towards anybody”.
Clementi’s father, Joe Clementi, told the judge that Ravi deserved to be punished, saying the young man saw his son as undeserving of basic human decency.
The elder Clementi said Ravi “still does not get it” and has no remorse. Prosecutors had offered Ravi a plea bargain that called for no prison time but he turned it down.
After a trial that lasted four weeks, Ravi was convicted of all 15 charges against him, including invasion of privacy, anti-gay intimidation, and trying to cover his tracks by destroying text messages and tweets and tampering with a witness.
Just as Clementi became a symbol for a complicated cause, so has Ravi.
Some have portrayed the case as a tragic lesson in unintended consequences and the dangers of the internet in the hands of young people.
Several hundred Ravi supporters rallied at New Jersey’s Statehouse last week to denounce the way the state’s hate-crime laws were being used on someone they said was not hateful.
They were hoping Ravi would not be sent to prison and that the law could be changed so that someone in his situation again would not be found to have committed a hate crime.