Attempt to harness anger over light sentence in Stanford assault - Recall Judge Aaron Persky

Attempt to harness anger over light sentence in Stanford assault

A former Stanford swimmer released from jail after serving half of a six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman was greeted Friday by protesters and politicians demanding that the viral outrage stirred by the case be harnessed to protect women and toughen punishments for sex crimes.

While 21-year-old Brock Turner is now free, and is expected to return to his native Ohio as a registered sex offender, the legacy of the attack outside a campus fraternity party remains in flux.

Critics are pushing for the removal of Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, whose sentencing of Turner became an international story, while Gov. Jerry Brown is weighing whether to sign a bill that would require defendants convicted of such crimes to serve at least three years in prison.

Unknown as well is whether the episode could spur lasting change on university campuses where many students say rape is too common and too tolerated.

“It’s disappointing that we even have to be here to discuss this,” said Stephanie Pham, 20, a Stanford junior who founded the school’s Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention and attended a rally Friday across from the courthouse. “We need to recall the judge to make sure rape is treated like the violent, heinous crime it is, and not as a drunken mistake.”

A handful of protesters were present at 6:08 a.m. when Turner, dressed in a white, long-sleeve shirt and dark slacks, emerged from jail in San Jose and stepped to a waiting white Chevrolet SUV to be whisked away by his parents. He refused to answer questions from reporters as he walked through barricades set up because of the wide interest in the case, a sport jacket tucked under his right arm.

“We’re done with him,” said Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith. “He should be in prison right now, but he’s not in our custody.”

Hours later, a crowd gathered in front of the courthouse, where people waved signs and chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Judge Persky has got to go.” Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor leading a recall effort against Persky, said, “His victim did not receive justice.”

She said she had written a letter recommending a two-year prison sentence. The county district attorney had asked for a six-year sentence.

The light sentence “sends a dangerous message,” Dauber said. “Don’t bother to call police because you will not receive justice. ... A biased judge is a threat to the entire justice system.”

The sentence prompted an online petition with more than 1 million signatures urging impeachment of the judge. And state legislators passed the bill that now sits on Brown’s desk, which would expand the definition of rape and mandate prison terms for attacks on unconscious victims. Brown has a month to decide whether to sign it.

A lineup of politicians — including state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles; Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose; Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose; and Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, and Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton — pushed for passage of the legislation and called for Persky’s removal.

“As a father of a daughter who just graduated from college, I was outraged and appalled — and let me just add, repulsed — by Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to give a rapist, Brock Turner, such lenient treatment,” said de León, who believes the decision was made because Turner is a member “of the privileged Stanford elite.”

“Simply put, he’s unworthy of the robe he wears or the bench he sits on,” he said of Persky.

While the case has raised wide concern about fairness in the justice system, some defense attorneys have stressed caution in moves to lengthen sentences and oust a sitting judge at a time of reforms meant to scale back an era of mass incarceration. Still, politicians and advocates on all sides have questioned Turner’s sentence.

In an interview Friday, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi agreed that the criminal justice system has long neglected sexual assault and rape. For every 1,000 rapes reported nationally, 993 go unpunished, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

And, Adachi said, it appears race and privilege impacted the outcome of the Turner case. He said an African American man was recently sentenced in San Francisco to eight years in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Even so, he said things can get dicey when politicians try to influence decision-making in the courts.

“Politicians should not be in the business of legislating what a person’s sentence should be,” Adachi said. “Every time we’ve allowed that to happen, from sentence enhancements to three strikes, it’s been disastrous. As a defense attorney, I hope the reaction to this is not that we should just lock everyone up for life with a similar charge, because that would be a mistake.”

Following his release, Turner and his parents went to a Palo Alto hotel, still trailed by television cameras. When they entered the lobby, the young man was wearing sunglasses and had changed into a gray hooded sweatshirt.

Turner had faced up to 10 years in prison when a jury found him guilty in March of assault with intent to commit rape and penetration of an intoxicated and unconscious person. In deciding that six months in county jail was sufficient, Persky concluded that prison time “would have a severe impact” on Turner, whose father had argued to the judge that a mistake and “20 minutes of action” shouldn’t ruin his life.

At the time of the sentencing, the case was not a national sensation. What resonated across the country was the powerful 7,244-word letter that talked about “two lives ruined,” read by the 23-year-old victim in court. She described how Turner “dragged me through this hell” during the Jan. 18, 2015, attack outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity and “took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice.”

The statement moved Vice President Joe Biden to respond in an open letter, writing to the victim, “Your bravery is breathtaking,” and saying her words “should be required reading for men and women of all ages.”

The case began when Turner was arrested after two graduate students riding bikes on Lomita Court around 1 a.m. found him, then a 19-year-old freshman, on top of a partially clothed woman. The students restrained Turner as he tried to get away and called police. The woman, who was not a student, was taken to a hospital and treated for her injuries.

Turner told responding officers he had seven cans of beer that night and thought he was having consensual sex with the woman, who authorities said was breathing but “completely unresponsive” as she lay near a tree and a Dumpster. The victim told police she had four whiskey shots and two shots of vodka, but couldn’t remember anything after talking with male guests at the fraternity party, according to a police report.

Turner withdrew from school Jan. 27, 2015, the day prosecutors announced he would be charged, and was banned from campus. He must remain on probation for three years and attend drug and alcohol counseling.

The case has already led to some changes. Eight days before Turner’s release, the Santa Clara County court announced Persky would be reassigned from the criminal to the civil division, reportedly at his own request. Persky has fired back against criticism with his own website asking for monetary contributions in support of his retention.

Stanford University officials recently banned the drinking of hard alcohol by undergraduates at campus parties, while exempting beer and wine.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who helped draft the sexual assault legislation, said Friday that Turner should still be behind bars, but added, “With the governor’s signature, the next Brock Turner will go to prison.”

Original article posted by SF Gate 
By Jenna Lyons, Michael Bodley and Peter Fimrite
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