Divided sentiments over fitting punishment for webcam spying

The Rutgers webcam case was recently linked to this year's presidential race.

As the trial of former Rutgers University freshman Dharun Ravi riveted the nation earlier this year, there seemed to be a widespread consensus that his high-tech spying on his gay roommate was heinous and should be punished.

But when the jury convicted Ravi of bias crimes and invasion of privacy, there was little public agreement about what should happen next.

What’s a just penalty for an 18-year-old offender who seemed to have been clueless about the risk of such dire consequences?

On May 21, Judge Glenn Berman will have to make that agonizing choice, in the face of a rising chorus of calls for lenience and sentencing guidelines that presume a prison sentence of five to 10 years.

The unusual details of the crime don’t make the judge’s decision any easier. Although Ravi was not charged in the death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi of Ridgewood, N.J., the young man’s suicide hovered over the courtroom every day, and many assumed that humiliation from exposure contributed to the 18-year-old’s tragic decision to jump off the George Washington Bridge.

In conversations in barbershops, office cafeterias, and kitchens, the case has had enormous power in sparking serious conversations about the pervasiveness of prejudice and the pain of bullying. These discussions reveal a vast spectrum of views about how to make the punishment fit the crime.

Would incarceration reflect a reasoned sensitivity to the feelings of the victim and an appropriate revulsion against bigotry? Or would it show an overreaching effort at deterrence, or even vengeance?

This quandary comes against a backdrop of growing intolerance for intolerance.

To appreciate the sea change in the public reaction to bias and bullying, consider the remarkable contrast in last Thursday’s news.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office filed papers insisting that Ravi go to jail for an incident in which there was no physical attack. That same day, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, was fending off reports that as a teenager he cut the hair off a fellow student who later came out as gay.

The assault, in which the victim was held down by a group of students, apparently was shrugged off as boys-will-be-boys behavior at the time.

Today, some want the harshest penalties for Ravi. They include A.C. Willment of Ridgewood, a 57-year-old copy editor at a legal publication. She was horrified that he destroyed potentially incriminating text messages and, she believed, showed no remorse in his two media interviews after the verdict. “I don’t believe for a second he’s sincere about feeling sorry or that he cares about anyone but Dharun Ravi,” she says.