Rutgers Suicide Spurs Outrage and Legal Questions

October 6, 2010

Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s tragic suicide last week has spurred outrage and an understandable desire for vengeance in some quarters. The details about the events leading up to Mr. Tyler’s death do not appear to be in dispute: His roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another Rutger’s classmate , Molly Wei posted online a live feed of Mr. Clementi having sex with another man in his dorm room. Three days later  Mr. Clementi killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.

Both students involved in streaming the video have been charged by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office with invasion of privacy. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

There is now speculation that additional charges may be brought. The New York Times reported that Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, considered the death a hate crime.

One former federal prosecutor, Malcolm Lazin, who is now head of Equality Forum, a national gay rights advocacy group, called on prosecutors to charge the two students with reckless manslaughter.  As a lawyer, he should know better. To prove manslaughter, a prosecutor must prove that these two kids could have foreseen Mr. Clementi’s suicide.

Well, what about charging them with a bias crime, otherwise known as a hate crime?

My problem with bias crimes has always been on First Amendment grounds:that they punish speech associated with criminal acts. See one of my prior posts. In this case, the crime was the invasion of Mr. Clementi’s privacy.  Unlike a traditional hate crime prosecution, here the defendants did not perpetrate any actual violence on Mr. Clementi.  However, the New Jersey statute doesn’t require a violent act, just a scheme to intimidate.

What was done to Mr. Clementi was horrible, but from a legal standpoint it is not very different from suicides precipitated by bullying or even this incident in Florida in 2009, when a 13-year-old girl killed herself after a nude photo she had “sexted” to a boy she liked got spread around her middle school.

These two Rutgers students were immature jerks, not murderers. The potential sentence of five years in prison seems just about right to me.

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