Dharun Ravi's hate crimes conviction for spying on his roommate's gay tryst represents a victory for gay rights and anti-bullying advocates - and a warning that such behavior won't simply be treated as a youthful mistake, legal experts say.
The Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide three days after learning Ravi used a webcam to spy on his encounter with another man. Ravi, who invited others to watch with him, was not charged with causing Clementi's death.
But the prosecution's decision to attach hate crime charges to a cyber-bullying case is "breaking new ground," said Marc Poirer, a law professor at Seton Hall University.
Ravi was convicted on Friday of all 15 counts, including bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and witness tampering.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers mostly agreed on the facts but the trial largely turned on what was in Ravi's mind at the time - and, thanks to an unusually strong New Jersey hate crime law, whether Clementi himself believed he was being bullied.
"The jury was saying that they were having zero tolerance for anything that appeared to be bullying," said Joel Reidenberg, a law professor at Fordham University.
New Jersey's bias intimidation law, like hate crime statutes in most states, functions as a "booster" charge, increasing the potential jail sentence when attached to an underlying crime -- in this case, invasion of privacy.
In most hate crime prosecutions, however, the underlying offense is either a violent crime or a crime in which the discrimination is obvious - for instance painting a swastika on the side of a synagogue.
"To me, it illustrates the dysfunction of hate crime laws that were passed with the idea that they would strike out against hate groups and neo-Nazi groups, and instead end up being used in these one-off kind of cases, where immature, confused young people act in some way that evidences prejudice," said James Jacobs, a professor at New York University School of Law.
The New Jersey law allows a jury to convict a defendant in two ways: either by concluding that the defendant targeted the victim out of bias, or by finding that the victim believed he had been targeted, even if that was not the defendant's intent.
The latter, which turns on the victim's state of mind rather than the defendant's, is rare among hate crime laws, legal experts said.
They are divided on whether it was appropriate to attach bias intimidation to the privacy charges.
"I truly wish that the case had not been brought with these kinds of charges," Poirer said. "I take bias intimidation seriously, but I don't think this is a particularly clear-cut case of it."
But Susan Abraham, a professor at New York Law School, said the evidence showed that Ravi had focused on Clementi's sexual orientation.
"The fact that he was clearly chosen, whatever you want to call it - even if you don't call it hate, don't call it bias, he was selected because he was gay," she said.
Ravi faces up to 10 years in prison for the bias intimidation conviction, but experts said he was almost assured of a lesser sentence, given his youth and lack of criminal history. For invasion of privacy alone, without the hate crimes, he would have faced no more than 5 years in prison.
An Indian citizen who grew up in the U.S., he also faces possible deportation.