March 19, 2012— -- The verdict in the State of New Jersey v. Dharun Ravi has been rendered. Beholden to America's short attention span, often preferring the presumption of guilt, reporters and advocates now sprint to the next story, the next cause, the next simplistic scandal.
But each story leaves a legacy, always more complex than we initially imagined, and now we must ask in the case of Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi how and if justice was served.
Ravi, 20, now faces up to 10 years in state prison after being found guilty of spying on his Rutgers University roommate Tyler Clementi with a webcam in the fall of 2010 because he was gay.
Criminal justice, like the truth, is often a moving target, a trail fraught with booby-traps, roadblocks and dead-end side streets. In America, we appoint guides to lead us down this trail -- escorts with a trained eye who have traveled similar roads and will keep us pointed in the right direction.
It's a relay of guides, actually, starting with the lawmakers who in turn arm the law enforcers, who then pass the baton to judges and ultimately a jury. There is no better system in the world, but like any chain, it is as strong as its weakest link.
It is hard to fault the jury for their verdict in the Ravi trial. They took their mission seriously and responsibly, and rendered a verdict understandable to their charge. But there were missteps along the way worthy of, at the very least, contemplation.
This particular path to justice began in 2001, when New Jersey lawmakers amended the state's hate crimes statute to, among other things, include sexual preference.
And here we find the chain's weakest link.
The law essentially enhances sentencing for a crime, if bias intimidation, is also proven. It vaguely describes intimidation as "conduct" and "circumstances" that can be perceived as biased. In short: Ravi's invasion of privacy presumes probation; his frame of mind, bias, presumes imprisonment.
"Muddled" is the word trial Judge Glenn Berman used to describe the law as he pondered out loud how he would instruct the jury to apply it.
"I've read the statute and read the statute more times than I can count," Berman said in open court but after the jury was excused. "I've studied it. The statute, to me, is muddled. If I had written it, I would have written it differently. But I didn't write it. The Legislature did."
So, if Judge Berman got carsick reading the statute, imagine how a lay juror felt. It gets more confusing.
The first two elements of bias intimidation cite a defendant's "purposeful" or "knowing" actions as criminal conduct. But a third element provides that a defendant can still be found guilty — absent of "purposeful" or "knowing" conduct — as long as the victim "reasonably" feels fear or becomes intimidated.
John Fahy, a former New Jersey prosecutor, thinks the very vagueness of the statute provide's Ravi's lawyers with a credible appellate issue.
"The principle of fair warning and void-for-vagueness doctrine come into play here," Fahy says.
The "fair warning requirement" implicit in the Due Process Clause demands that criminal statutes provide "fair warning" in language that the common world will understand, of what the law intends to do, Fahy explains. A statute can be rendered void and unenforceable if it is too vague for the average citizen to understand.
New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Vitale, one of the law's sponsors, thinks the law stood up just fine…. Maybe.