PALO ALTO — After attacking his girlfriend and punching a bystander who tried to protect her last year, College of San Mateo athlete Keenan Smith landed a plea deal that allowed him to continue his budding football career. His charges were reduced to misdemeanors and the star running back only had to serve about half of his 60-day sentence behind bars — provided he completed a 52-week domestic violence program and put in about 28 days on the jail’s weekend work crew.
But in the past six months, Smith has not lived up to his end of the bargain. The 20-year-old only recently began attending the batterers’ course consistently, and he performed just three days of weekend work before being booted out of the program earlier this month for failing to show up. Yet he’s managed to make football practice and play in nearly every Bulldogs game.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber blames Smith’s lack of progress on the Santa Clara County Superior Court judge in the case — Aaron Persky — whom she is trying to recall for what she contends is a pattern of deference toward collegiate athletes and indifference to female victims of physical or sexual violence.
Persky set off an international furor this summer after allowing former Stanford athlete Brock Turner to serve only three months in jail for sexually assaulting an intoxicated, unconscious woman outside a campus fraternity party. Dauber also has criticized Persky for agreeing to delay sentencing for another young athlete convicted of physically assaulting his girlfriend, so he could play football at the University of Hawaii.
“This sent the message that football was more important than violence against women,’’ Dauber said. “Not surprisingly, Mr. Smith failed to take even this lenient sentence seriously, and repeatedly failed to do what little Judge Persky asked of him.’’
But Smith’s lawyer, Alternate Public Defender Barbara Muller, and the county’s chief probation officer dispute that the justice system let Smith off the hook until someone blew the whistle. In a state grappling with prison overcrowding, local authorities, they say, face new pressures to rehabilitate lower-level offenders outside of jail. Muller said playing football is Smith’s ticket to a scholarship to a four-year college, not just fun and games.
“He’s capable of being rehabilitated,” Muller said.
Alerted by Dauber, the District Attorney’s Office has taken the unusual step of hauling Smith back to court for a probation violation inquiry Tuesday that could end with a warning, a requirement to give up playing on Saturdays until he completes his weekend work, or a return to jail. Typically, probation officers are in charge of calling for such hearings.
“This situation is somewhat of a surprise to us,’’ Assistant District Attorney Brian Welch said. “We felt there was much closer supervision. It appears like a more relaxed system than we thought.’’
But probation Chief Laura Garnette said his probation officer is doing a good job.
“We kept very, very good oversight on him,’’ said Garnette, noting he has no prior criminal record. “This young man is in college, in sports and working full time. We need to keep working with him even if it takes awhile.’’
According to court documents, Persky accommodated his football schedule — allowing him to skip weekend work on Saturdays so he could play, and to show up late to court. The judge also agreed with a request from his lawyer and the prosecution to reduce the battery charge against him so he would be eligible to participate in the weekend work program. Persky, Dauber contended, also failed to hold Smith accountable when it became clear he wasn’t complying with the terms of the plea deal negotiated by his lawyer and the prosecutor.
Persky has since transferred to hearing civil matters and is no longer involved in Smith’s case. A court spokesman said the judge cannot comment because the matter is still pending.
Smith has a heavy schedule, including classes from morning through mid-afternoon, football practice and the graveyard shift as a security guard at an apartment complex. He briefly attended the year-long domestic violence program in the spring, but had to drop out because he like many offenders, he could not afford the $50 a week fee, Muller said.
Both Muller and Garnette also said Smith has been assessed as a low-risk offender. In an example some say demonstrates his ability to control his temper, in November, after serving 32 days in jail, he called police rather than retaliating physically after the same girlfriend he was convicted of assaulting refused to leave his apartment because she thought he was with another woman, said Belmont police Capt. Pat Halleran. Police arrested the girlfriend, but the district attorney declined to prosecute. She declined to comment.
Smith was arrested Aug. 21, 2015, after several people who worked at a nearby business told police they saw the 205-pound man shove his girlfriend around a parking lot at least 10 times before grabbing her face and pushing her onto the ground. Just as he appeared poised to hit her, one of the men tried to break it up and was punched in the head by Smith and knocked out, according to the police report..
One of the witnesses warned that Smith has proven he is is capable of dangerous behavior. Advocates for victims of domestic violence agreed.
“The lesson is, nothing is going to happen to me and I can belt her even harder the next time because she knows the system won’t do anything,” said Kathleen Krenek, executive director of Next Door Solutions to Domestic Violence.
Original article posted by The Mercury News
By Tracey Kaplan
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