TRENTON, N.J. – Several hundred protesters gathered Monday at the New Jersey State House to show support for a former Rutgers student convicted of bias intimidation and to call attention to what they see as injustices in New Jersey's hate-crime laws.
The rally was in support of Dharun Ravi, a 20-year-old former Rutgers student who was convicted in March of 15 criminal counts, including four charges of bias intimidation, for using his webcam to view a brief live clip of his roommate kissing another man. Most of Ravi's supporters were Indian-American, like he is.
The roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide days after the online peeping in September 2010 and quickly became a symbol of the harm that can be done to young gays.
Ravi's supporters see him as a symbol, too — of the justice system gone awry in search of someone to blame. Ravi could get 10 years in prison when he's sentenced on May 21. He could also face deportation to India, where he was born and lived as a young child and remains a citizen.
"If this kid ends up in jail on Monday," said Sandeep Sharma, one of the organizers of the rally, "my faith will be shaken in this country."
Ravi's lawyers have asked a judge to overturn his conviction. Failing that, they say he should not serve any jail time. In court papers, the Middlesex County Prosecutor's office has said that Ravi deserves jail time — though not the 10-year maximum sentence he faces.
The protesters were mostly professionals, some dressed in business suits. They held signs and chanted slogans such as "No jail time," and "Drop all charges." Some held posters quoting former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who is gay, saying Ravi should not be sent to prison.
Ravi, who lives in Plainsboro, was not there, but his parents were. His mother, Sabitha Ravi, addressed the crowd, telling them she believes the media should help her son. "They know he didn't get a fair trial," she said.
Sharma said he does not have high hopes for Monday's rally helping keep Ravi from getting a jail sentence, but said it could lead to changes in the state's hate-crime laws. He and some others met with the staffs of several lawmakers earlier Monday to talk about bias intimidation.
One provision was particularly complicated during the trial earlier this year.
On one bias intimidation charge, the jury found that Ravi did not knowingly or intentionally intimidate Clementi or the other man, identified in court only by the initials M.B. But the jury found Clementi reasonably believed that Ravi targeted him because he was gay. On the three other bias-intimidation charges, jurors found that Ravi knowingly or intentionally intimidated his roommate.
"It's so malleable, what counts as a threat?" asked Marc Poirier, a Seton Hall law professor who has been studying hate-crime laws. Poirier also addressed the crowd Monday, as did Bill Dobbs, a New York City civil libertarian and gay-rights activist who has warned since Clementi's suicide against scapegoating Ravi.
The rally represented a role reversal for some people in central New Jersey's large Indian community.
Pradip Kothari said he was among those who pushed for New Jersey lawmakers to introduce hate-crime legislation more than two decades ago after a 30-year-old Indian-American man, Navroze Mody, was beaten to death at a Hoboken train station in 1987 by a group of so-called anti-Indian "dot-busters."
Kothari, who now owns a travel agency in Edison, said prosecutors didn't use hate-crime laws over the years when his previous building, in Iselin, was vandalized.
"In 22 years," he told the crowd but addressing prosecutors whom he said were unfair, "you didn't find one person to try."
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