The embattled judge in the Stanford sexual assault trial is presiding over a similar case in which a Latino man is facing a much harsher sentence than Brock Turner, raising questions about how the former student may have benefited from his privileged background.
Raul Ramirez, a 32-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who admitted to sexually assaulting his female roommate in a case that has similarities with the Stanford case, will be sentenced to three years in state prison under a deal overseen by judge Aaron Persky, according to records obtained by the Guardian.
The three-year-prison sentence, part of a plea agreement signed in March, provides a sharp contrast to the outcome for Turner, a white 20-year-old former Stanford swimmer who Persky sentenced to probation and six months in county jail after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
The parallel cases, which include similar felony charges of sexual assault, could lend weight to what critics of Persky allege are biases in his courtroom. Others, however, argue that Persky’s actions were reasonable and that the divergence in punishments stems from broader disparities in the criminal justice system.
“What’s happened with Mr Ramirez is standard,” said Alexander Cross, a defense attorney who briefly represented Ramirez when his family could afford a private lawyer. “The anomaly is the Stanford case.”
‘He wanted to say sorry’
The details of the Stanford sexual assault conviction have become well known since the case received global attention. On 18 January 2015, two passersby on campus spotted Turner “thrusting” on top of a motionless woman lying on the ground outside of a fraternity house by a dumpster.
Turner, from Dayton, Ohio, admitted to fingering her, but claimed it was consensual. A jury disagreed and convicted him of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
Instead of sentencing him to the minimum of two years in state prison prescribed by law, Persky made an exception for Turner, determining that his case was “unusual” and that prison would have a “severe impact” on him. After thevictim’s impact statement went viral, the judge’s controversial sentencing decision, which will result in Turner spending three months in jail, received international scorn.
Critics slammed the judge for being sympathetic to Turner and concluding that there was “less moral culpability” because he was intoxicated at the time. Persky is now facing a recall campaign led by a Stanford law professor, and lawmakers have called for an investigation.
Court documents show that although the allegations in Ramirez’s case mirror the Stanford assault in several ways, the defendant had a very different experience at multiple stages of the court process.
Ramirez was arrested at his home in Santa Clara County in November 2014 after his roommate called 911 to say that he had sexually assaulted her, according to police reports.
Ramirez gave the woman a “love letter” and later entered her bedroom and fingered her for about five to 10 minutes against her will, according to a police report, and stopped only when she started crying.
When police arrived, he admitted to the assault. “Ramirez knew what he did was wrong and he wanted to say sorry,” one officer wrote.
Ramirez, who has used a Spanish interpreter in court, had his bail set at $200,000 – significantly higher than the $150,000 bail set for Turner.
Ramirez could not be reached for comment, and multiple attorneys who have represented him declined to connect him to the Guardian.
‘A question of lifestyle’
Judge Persky handled the hearings and negotiations in the Ramirez case, according to Santa Clara county prosecutors. Terry Lynn Harman, assistant district attorney, said that the judge agreed with the prosecutors’ position throughout the process – that Ramirez should receive a state prison sentence.
According to records of the plea deal that Persky oversaw, Ramirez agreed to plead guilty to a felony of sexual penetration by force. Under the terms of the deal, he will spend three years in state prison, the minimum punishment for the offense.
Persky is expected to formalize the three-year sentence at a later date, Harman said.
The prosecution had no objections to Persky’s handling of the case, she added. In the Turner case, the Santa Clara district attorney slammed Persky’s sentencing decision.
Ramirez, like Turner, has no criminal record of convictions for serious or violent felonies, according to court records.
Because Ramirez ultimately pleaded guilty to a felony offense that does not have an option for probation or a lighter sentence, Persky was limited in the sentence he could approve for the specific conviction.
But critics say that Persky, a former Stanford athlete himself, bent over backwards to make an exception in the Turner case, and that if he wanted to give Ramirez the same favorable treatment, the judge could have utilized his discretion and recommended a less harsh prosecution.
Specifically, Persky could have approved or helped negotiate a bargain in which Ramirez only pleaded guilty to the lesser of two charges he was facing – assault with intent to commit rape. If the more serious charge was dropped – as was the case with Turner, who had two rape charges dropped – Ramirez could have potentially avoided prison.
Michele Landis Dauber, the Stanford professor leading the recall, said the Ramirez case was further evidence that the judge should be removed. “This just shows that our concern about Judge Persky’s ability to be unbiased is justified. We continue to think that he abused his discretion in giving an unduly lenient sentence to Turner,” he said.
Ramirez’s three-year deal “shows that Turner got consideration not available to other defendants who aren’t as privileged”, added Dauber, who is also a family friend of the Stanford victim.
Persky is barred from commenting on pending cases.
While the Ramirez case and the Stanford assault have clear differences in race and class – Cross said Ramirez is “very poor” – the two stories also diverge in the defendants’ responses.
Turner has continued to blame his assault on a “party culture” of “drinking”, claiming that the woman consented, even though police and others confirmed that she was unconscious. Ramirez pleaded guilty and, according to police accounts, apologized.
In court, Persky said Turner should not be faulted for refusing to admit to the assault: “I’m not convinced that his lack of complete acquiescence to the verdict should count against him.”
Cross said that when privileged defendants can pay a private attorney and articulate the ways in which a prison sentence would have a severe impact – destroying a promising athletic career, for example – they fare better than average working class people. “It’s really a question of lifestyle.”
Persky had dozens of letters from Turner’s friends and family attesting to his character and outlining what it would mean to be separated from him if he went to prison.
Cross said that in a case like Ramirez’s, “society is not exactly suffering a loss. At least, that’s not how it’s looked upon”.
Experts also note that it’s not surprising a low-income defendant of color would face a worse outcome than a white man in comparable cases.
“Whether due to implicit bias or other factors, race still plays a role in sentencing outcomes,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group.
Research has repeatedly shown that black and Latino people sentenced in state and federal courts are much more likely to face incarceration than white offenders in similar circumstances – and they receive longer sentences.
In the wake of the intense backlash against Persky, public defenders and other criminal justice reform advocates have come to his defense, arguing that judges must have discretion to issue lenient sentences when appropriate.
An Associated Press review of 20 criminal cases for which Persky has issued sentences also concluded that there didn’t appear to be any racial biases in his decisions.
He pointed out that the distinct outcomes in the two cases stems from the way that California law treats sexual assault of a conscious person as a more serious offense than attacking an unconscious victim.
Goodman also said that Persky played a passive role in Ramirez’s plea negotiations.
Cross, too, said that although he believes that the system favors wealthier, privileged defendants, he did not fault Persky.
“I’ve found him to be one of the fairest judges.”
Originally posted by the Guardian
By Sam Levin
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