Some gay rights groups are urging that New Jersey's hate crime law be used in the case of the Rutgers student who committed suicide after an intimate encounter with another student was shown on the Internet.
The state's hate crime law is among the strictest in the nation, and it works as most of them do. It's not an offense charged on its own. Instead, it's invoked at sentencing to seek a harsher penalty. The criminal charges filed so far in the case — invasion of privacy — would qualify for a hate crime enhancement, say legal experts in the state.
According to the Middlesex County prosecutor, New Jersey's invasion of privacy statutes make it a crime "to collect or view images depicting nudity or sexual contact involving another individual without that person's consent." It's a separate crime to transmit or distribute those images. The penalty can include a prison term of up to five years.
If the hate crime enhancement were applied, it would raise the maximum penalty to 10 years.
Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off New York City's George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River last week. His body was identified on Thursday after being found in the river a day before.
Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi's privacy. Prosecutors say that they used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi's suicide.
As for possible federal charges, a Justice Department official says that's not likely at this point. The federal hate crime law would not apply, the official says, because it requires proof of an intent to cause violence to the victim.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of New Jersey-based Garden State Equality, said in a statement that his group considers Clementi's death a hate crime.
"We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind," Goldstein said. "And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others' lives as a sport."
Former assistant Essex County prosecutor Luanne Peterpaul, who is vice chairwoman of Garden State Equality, said in order to apply the hate crime law prosecutors would need to establish that the defendants were motivated to act because they perceived Clementi as gay. But that can be hard to prove, she said.
Gay rights groups say Clementi's death is the latest example of a long-standing problem: young people who kill themselves because they're bullied about being gay — regardless of whether they are.
In response to Clementi's death and others, the group Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays said it would issue a "call to action" on the topic.
Last week, Dan Savage, a columnist at the Seattle weekly newspaper The Stranger, launched the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube channel where gay, lesbian and bisexual adults share the turmoil they experienced when they were younger — and show how their lives have gotten better.