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Letters asked for leniency in Rutgers webcam case

May 26, 2012 9:29:20 AM PDT
The letters came from a man who was once beaten with a baseball bat in a racially motivated attack, the widow of a Minnesota judge, a group representing lesbian, gay and transgendered people from South Asia, a gay member of the Navy, and the father of a woman who committed suicide, among others.

There were more than 100 in all, and nearly all had the same theme: telling the judge it would be unjust to put former Rutgers student Dharun Ravi in prison for using a webcam to see roommate Tyler Clementi kissing another man in 2010, just days before Clementi killed himself.

"I learned a lot about bias crimes and bullying through this case," said a writer named Louise. "The bullying and bias acts occurred when the legal system and media got involved. Ravi is not to blame for the hardships endured by the gay community nor should he be tied to the whipping post because of it. If Tyler was not gay, this would have been just a prank gone wrong and no one would have rushed to incarcerate."

Ravi, now 20, was convicted in March of 15 criminal counts, including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy.

Soon after that, the letters began pouring into Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman's chambers making requests for how to handle sentencing. Ravi faced up to 10 years in prison.

Last week, Berman told him he would have to serve 30 days in jail. Because the sentence is less than a year, it decreases the chances that federal immigration authorities will seek to have Ravi deported to India, where he was born and remains a citizen. Prosecutors said they would appeal the sentence as too light. Ravi, who maintains he is innocent, is considering appealing the entire conviction.

Before delivering the sentence, Berman held up a folder, inches thick, of the letters he'd received from the public. Later, he quoted one of them, calling Clementi's suicide the "pink elephant" in the case.

Berman made the letters publicly available, but only after having court staff cross out the last names, addresses of and other identifying information about their authors. He said the writers may have expected their communications with him would be private.

It's a case that's been dissected by pundits and advocates, addressed by President Barack Obama, debated on by hundreds of bloggers, tweeters and online newspaper commenters and discussed at countless dinner tables. The people who decided to address Berman directly represent just one sliver of the public comment on the tragedy - but a particularly passionate one.

These writers are people who didn't just want to join the conversation; they wanted to appeal to the judge to do what they believed was the right thing.

Many of the letters were written independently, but some came through an orchestrated effort. More than 30 of those in the file opened by the judge included a pre-printed plea with space for personal additions. Sandeep Sharma, a friend of Ravi's family and an organizer of the letters, said hundreds of them were sent to the judge.

Sharma said he thinks the letters were one factor in the relatively light sentence. "It had probably some influence," Sharma said. "I think the judge himself did not believe that this case belonged to the criminal court system to begin with."

Just three of the letters called on the judge to give Ravi a stiff penalty.

One, from Keith in Lincoln Park: "There is no such thing as 'it was only a joke.' There are consequences for everything we do in life."

Another, identified only as Richard, said he was "victimized in a similar situation" 40 years ago as a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. "I feel the pain to this day," he wrote. "Please give Dharun Ravi a harsh sentence."

Some of the letters came from students who said they weren't sure Ravi's actions were wrong at all. One, who said she knew Ravi, confessed that she probably would have done the same thing Ravi did. Another said was troubled by his gay roommate at Rutgers having sex in their dorm room and took action - he didn't say exactly what - to document what had happened "in case it was necessary." The student, named Ryan, wrote: "I never thought I was invading anyone's privacy. I felt my privacy was invaded every time another gay student was at my room with my roommate."

But most of the letters came from people who thought Ravi had made a terrible mistake - but did not deserve prison.

Some thought the media and public opinion had punished him already. Some said prosecutors were overzealous and others said Ravi, because he is Indian, was the victim of discrimination.

Some, like Amitabha, of Succasunna, N.J., said that prison was just too much. She wrote: "We have already lost a talented young man, Tyler Clementi, and it will be a double tragedy if Ravi's life is also ruined by a stiff sentence and is forced to leave the country he lived practically all his life."

Jackson, a former Rutgers sociology professor whose daughter committed suicide, wrote that Ravi is already paying for any role he had in Clementi's death: "I am convinced that he had no idea that his immature prank would contribute to his roommate's suicide and that he, like me, will punish himself with guilt for the rest of his life."

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