(AP) NJ spycam case stirs debate over hate crime laws
By DAVID CRARY
AP National Writer
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.
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.
A longtime gay rights activist in New York, Bill Dobbs, also was troubled by the case.
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.
Asked about the debate over hate crime laws, Gorenberg stressed the need to consider the plight of victimized gays and lesbians, especially young people.
Some conservative legal groups campaigned vigorously against the Matthew Shepard Act, dubbing it a “thought crimes” bill that would potentially criminalize anti-gay speech as well as anti-gay violence.
Jacobs, the NYU professor, has depicted hate crime laws as unnecessary and counterproductive, albeit popular among certain politicians.
For the American Civil Liberties Union, which strives to defend both freedom of expression and gay rights, hate crimes legislation can raise some complicated questions.
Chris Anders, the ALCU’s senior legislative counsel for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, said the organization supports aspects of federal hate crimes policy that allow for federal intervention in cases where state or local officials are deemed to be remiss.
However, he said the ACLU has been concerned about the possibility that hate crimes trials could make use of evidence not directly related to the crime _ a defendant’s past comments or reading material, for example.
Anders said the ALCU withdrew its support for the Matthew Shepard Act because it did not include certain language addressing this concern.
He recalled that during debate on the Matthew Shepard Act, many Republicans assailed it and many Democrats lauded it.
David Crary can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CraryAP