New York — There was a verdict in the wrenching Rutgers webcam spying case, but no resolution to a broader question that hovered over it: To what extent are hate crime laws a help or a hindrance in the pursuit of justice?
The gist of the verdict: Former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was convicted Friday of anti-gay intimidation for using a webcam to spy on his gay roommate’s love life. The roommate, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, threw himself to his death off a bridge not long after realizing he’d been watched.
While disavowing any sense of celebration, some gay-rights leaders commended the outcome as a vindication of hate crimes legislation.
“We do believe this verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality.
In other quarters, there was dismay at the use of New Jersey’s hate crimes law in the case, and at the verdict that could saddle 20-year-old Ravi with a prison sentence of 10 years or more despite a dearth of evidence that he hated gays.
“It illustrates why hate crime laws are not a good idea,” said James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University. “They were passed to be admired and not to be used.”
A longtime gay rights activist in New York, Bill Dobbs, also was troubled by the case.
“As hate crime prosecutions mount, the problems with these laws are becoming more obvious ... how they compromise cherished constitutional principles,” Dobbs said. “Now a person gets tried not just for misdeeds, but for who they are, what they believe, what their character is.”
Hate crime laws have been an American institution for decades, and are on the books in 45 states. Generally, they provide enhanced penalties for crimes committed out of racial, ethnic or religious basis, while the laws in about 30 states, including New Jersey, also cover offenses based on sexual orientation.
In 2009, Congress followed suit, expanding federal hate-crimes legislation to cover crimes motivated by bias against gays, lesbians and transgender people. The bill is known as the Matthew Shepard Act, in honor of the gay college student brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
According to the latest FBI statistics, 1,528 people were targeted by anti-gay hate crimes in 2010 — accounting for almost 19 percent of all reported hate crimes.
Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights legal group, said the Ravi verdict underscored the value of hate crime legislation.
“Hate crime laws are public statements that our government and our society recognize the deep wounds inflicted when violence is motivated by prejudice and hate,” said the group’s deputy legal director, Hayley Gorenberg. “The verdict ... demonstrates that the jurors understood that bias crimes do not require physical weapons like a knife in one’s hand.”