Lighter Sentence In Clementi Bullying Case

On Monday, Dharun Ravi was sentenced to a 30-day jail term for using a webcam to spy on his roommate Tyler Clementi. Clementi was having an intimate encounter with another man in their dorm room, and a few days later, he committed suicide. Host Michel Martin discusses the sentence with Paul Butler, a law professor and former federal prosecutor.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, it's a novel. It's a health and diet guide. It's a sexy take on marriage. Best-selling writer Alice Randall's latest offering is sparking some heated conversations about women and weight, especially black women. Author Alice Randall joins our diverse panel of moms to talk about the book and her controversial New York Times op-ad. That's just ahead.

But, first, we want to find out the latest developments in a case that sparked an emotional reaction around the country and some important conversations about privacy, sexuality and bullying in this high tech world of ours. It's the story of Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi.

Two years ago, they were freshman roommates at Rutgers University when Ravi used his webcam to spy briefly on Clementi while Clementi was having an intimate encounter with another man in their dorm room. Ravi also tweeted about it. A few days later, Clementi took his own life.

Although Ravi was not charged with having caused Clementi's death, the case was cited by LGBT activists and others as an example of the kinds of intense emotional pressures faced by LGBT youth.

In March, Dharun Ravi was convicted of several offenses, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. He faced 10 years in prison and deportation to India. But earlier this week, Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, as well as probation and community service, and he was fined $10,000.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called on Paul Butler. He's a professor at the George Washington University Law School. He's a former federal prosecutor. He's been following this case closely and he's with us now.

Paul, welcome back. Thanks for joining us again.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Michel. Great to be here.

MARTIN: Of the charges of which he was convicted, what were the most serious?

BUTLER: Invasion of privacy and that's because Ravi spied on Tyler in his bedroom on two occasions, but bias intimidation, which is kind of like a hate crime. The idea is that he targeted Tyler in part because he's gay, and then he tried to cover up, so witness tampering and hindering apprehension. Altogether, 15 counts, so he was looking at 10 years - up to 10 years in prison.

MARTIN: I am interested in your opinion about this. I'm going to ask you about that in a minute, but during the sentencing, the judge made a distinction between the bias crime that he was convicted of and a hate crime, and he says this distinction is one of the reasons he was only sentenced to 30 days. Can you help us understand that?

BUTLER: It was a somewhat strange comment by the judge because it kind of seemed to discount the jury verdict, which did convict Mr. Ravi of targeting Tyler because he's gay. But what the judge said is it's not like he hated Tyler because he was gay. It was more like a prank, that he was very insensitive, but it's not like, you know - when we think of a hate crime, we think of something like what happened to James Byrd, who was dragged on a truck. And it wasn't that.

But the judge said, you know, he went on and on about how Mr. Ravi didn't show any remorse, so everybody thought he was going to throw the book at him, but then he comes up with this 30 days, which is a lenient sentence.

MARTIN: You know, it was a very emotional scene in the courtroom. The prosecutor, I think it's fair to say, was visibly upset at the sentence and the parents - the mothers of both - well, Tyler Clementi was not officially a party to this, but his mother spoke and Dharun Ravi's mother spoke. I just want to play a short clip from Tyler Clementi's mother.

JANE CLEMENTI: My question is, why didn't his roommate just request a roommate change? Why was he so arrogant and so mean-spirited and evil that he would humiliate and embarrass Tyler in front of his new dorm mates, the very people Tyler was trying to meet and become friends with? How could they all just go along with such meanness? Why didn't any one of them speak up and stop it?

MARTIN: And now I'll play a clip from Dharun Ravi's mother, as well. This is also very emotional. Here it is:

SABITHA RAVI: As a mother, I feel that Dharun has really suffered enough for the past two years. The media's influence on this case is devastating. My 20-year-old son already has too much burden on his shoulders to face for the rest of his life.

MARTIN: Now, the judge said at the time that the sentencing would not make either party happy. That seems to be true. Paul, I'd like to ask your perspective on this. What's your take?

BUTLER: Well, you know, the judge cited Ravi's age. He's just 20 years old. He doesn't have any criminal history and this wasn't a crime of violence and, importantly, the sentencing officer, the probation officer, didn't recommend any jail time. The judge said, well, I'm going to give him 30 days just because he hasn't shown any remorse.

I think it was an appropriate sentence. Again, Mr. Ravi was not convicted or even prosecuted for causing Tyler's death. What he was doing was a prank. It was a stupid prank, but when we think about what college kids do, is 30 days appropriate for a stupid prank, even one with these kind of tragic consequences? I think, probably, yes.

MARTIN: It's interesting that this case has sparked such intense feeling across the board. I mean, there are also people who feel that the case was overcharged from the beginning. Of course, it had the tragic casualty, of course, that is never far from anyone's thoughts. And I just wonder if you feel that any precedent has been set here or are the circumstances so distinct that it's hard to see another scenario to which this might be applied?

BUTLER: Well, a really important conversation is going on. This is the third time that I've been on this show and we've talked about cyberbullying. We talked about violence against LGBT people. We talked about the importance of free speech and the tension between that and prosecuting people for bias.

So, you know, every social problem doesn't have to result in somebody going to prison for a long time. Sometimes, there can be other positive consequences, so I think this important national conversation about civil discourse is the most positive thing that can come out of this case.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, the first assistant prosecutor, Julia McClure, told the judge that she would appeal the sentence. Is that - what is your assessment? I'm asking you to predict, which is unfair, but what do you think is the likelihood of her being successful?

BUTLER: I predict they're going to lose that appeal. The judge didn't make any error of law. He had the discretion not to sentence any jail time - so there's no real ground.

The other interesting thing is that the prosecution originally offered a plea deal with no jail time. So I don't know where they get off now coming and saying that 30 days is too little when they were going to be satisfied with none at all.

MARTIN: Interesting. Paul Butler is a professor at the George Washington University Law School. He's a former federal prosecutor. His latest book is "Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice," and he was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios, and he's been following this case closely, as we said.

Paul Butler, thank you for joining us.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure.

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