There was a telling moment during the sentencing of Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student who was convicted of 15 criminal counts in the webcam spying case. That was when Judge Glenn Berman admonished Dharun for not standing when he was being sentenced, and a perplexed Dharun desperately looked at his attorney, who obviously didn’t advise him to stand. Can a 20-year-old, who has lived the last two years of his life completely under the tutelage of his attorneys, be held responsible for this legally discourteous slip? Or should the judge have held in contempt his attorneys, who, even after the reprimand, didn’t have the presence of mind to advise Dharun to stand for the remainder of the sentencing?
The judge should have also known better than to chastise Dharun for not apologizing and not showing remorse considering that it could have been the defense strategy to keep Dharun silent, along with the decision not to let him testify during the trial and not make a statement during the sentencing. Particularly bewildering is how Dharun, setting aside the legal implications, was supposed to have conveyed his remorse, beyond what is already evident in his demeanor before the court and his conduct outside. The judge also seemed to have ignored the unsuccessful attempts by the Ravi family to reach out to the Clementis.
Even more confounding is that media critics, including the few who support the lenient sentence that Dharun received, seemed to parrot the judge’s views on the question of Dharun’s remorse and apology. The mighty New York Times in its editorial went so far as to urge Dharun to “take responsibility for his actions and demonstrate he is worthy of the justice he received from Judge Berman.” Really?
Consider this: The kid who beat up and cut the hair of his gay schoolmate can run to become the president of the United States and the guy who experimented with all kinds of drugs, including cocaine, gets to be the president. But the child who has no history of any kind of bias, or is guilty of any bad habit, let alone an illegal one, plays a prank on his roommate who was making out with a “dude” for a few juvenile giggles, has to show remorse and apologize? For what? Just so he can get to live the life of a convicted felon?
Everyone seems to agree with Judge Berman’s characterization of Dharun’s actions as reflecting “colossal insensitivity,” but no one seems to ask themselves how many 18-year-olds are capable of showing “colossal sensitivity” in a dorm, that too, toward gay sexual behavior that even mature adults struggle to come to grips with.
The Times’ Frank Bruni wrote in his blog that he “couldn’t help feeling powerfully frustrated and wondering if Ravi really carries as heavy a heart as he should, and is as inclined toward atonement and as capable of redemption as many of us would wish him to be.” Despite his claims to the contrary, Mr. Bruni obviously blames Dharun for causing Tyler Clementi to commit suicide. After all, atonement and redemption cannot be associated with watching a couple make out for a few seconds on the Web and then tweeting about it, can it?
Besides, Dharun wasn’t charged in Tyler’s tragic and immeasurably heartbreaking suicide nor is he accused of, as Judge Berman himself admitted, “hating” his gay roommate. In that case, where is the question of remorse or apology, let alone the fact that he cannot apologize for charges to which he pleaded not guilty? And stretching the limits of credulity, the judge rebuked Dharun for not apologizing to Tyler’s lover, who still remains anonymous.
And what kind of sensitivity are the media critics showing by taking exception to Dharun’s perceived demeanor? Looking at Dharun all through the trial, all I saw was a child who was petrified by all that was happening to him and around him – the police, the prosecutors, the media, the isolation, the alienation, the anguish of his parents and, aside from all the legalities and whether he admits it to himself or not, the latent guilt by association in the death of his roommate. In that stoical composure, I could only see him bottle up all these emotions, fears, bewilderment and, most of all, defenselessness.
Not every child is groomed to act out for “AC 360” or op-ed columnists. This is not about playing to the galleries. This is about children making mistakes that sometimes, wittingly or unwittingly, lead to terrible consequences. Justice is a higher value than law. It is not served by extracting that proverbial pound of flesh.