A small, simple pavilion now occupies the notorious spot where ex-Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman in 2015. The dumpster that once marked the crime scene is gone.
Still in place, however: Judge Aaron Persky, who stirred outrage by sentencing Turner to a mere six months in jail after his jury conviction on three felony counts.
How long Persky will continue to stay on the bench isn’t clear: A group gathering signatures to subject him to a recall says it’s nearing its goal—and Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Cindy Hendrickson, a mother of three daughters, is launching her campaign in earnest this week to claim his job.
If the recall effort moves forward, it could soothe critics who have raged over the Turner sentence, and at a time when allegations of sexual harassment and violence have made national headlines and sparked debate. Speaking to Newsweek in her first major interview about challenging Persky for his Superior Court seat, Hendrickson avoided the ethical tripwire of discussing the Turner case in detail. Instead, Hendrickson spoke about the “gut-wrenching cases” she handled as a prosecutor, including sexual assault.
“I felt like I really had an opportunity to make a difference not only in the lives of the victims but also in making the public more safe,” she said.
If Hendrickson has reservations or restrictions about dissecting the Turner case with a sharp scalpel, Michele Landis Dauber, the Stanford law professor spearheading the Persky recall drive, does not. She says Persky is simply a biased jurist who has no place on the bench.
“The message sent by the Turner sentence to perpetrators [was], ‘Don't worry: Even if you’re caught red-handed, literally, and convicted by a jury, the system will have your back,” Dauber told Newsweek. “To victims, [it] said, ‘Don't bother calling 911, because even if you put yourself through the trauma of the rape kit and the trial and you prevail, your perpetrator will not experience any serious consequences.’”
Dauber said this week her group has already gathered more than 50,000 of the 58,634 signatures it needs to submit next year to make the recall a reality. (As a buffer to petition challenges, the group plans to submit plenty of extra names—maybe 90,000 or more.) Persky is currently serving a six-year term that ends in 2022, but if his opponents get their way, a motion to replace him could appear before voters in June 2018.
Before the voters elected a president accused of sexual assault and Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct fueled a public outcry over women’s rights and rape culture, the case at Stanford became a flashpoint for the handling of campus rape, a rallying cry for those who say the justice system treats sexual misconduct too leniently. And to many, Persky represented a system that protects men of influence and power.
Turner was a member of the Stanford swim team in January 2015 when passersby spotted him on top of an unconscious woman in the dark outside a frat house. When he tried to run, the two grad student witnesses grabbed him. A freshman at the time, Turner was later convicted of intent to rape an unconscious and intoxicated person, along with two other felony counts.
Turner’s father pleaded for probation instead of prison, saying his son had already lost the life he dreamed of—“a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
The prosecution asked that Turner get six years in the case. Persky gave him six months. The judge did little to ease the condemnations from victims’ advocates by saying of Turner, “Obviously, a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”
Turner was out of the lockup in three months. He registered as a sex offender in Ohio, listing a home owned by his parents as his address. The case recently and controversially became an actual textbook example of sexual assault, with Turner’s photo appearing in a 2017 criminology volume co-written by a University of Colorado professor.
The woman remains publicly known as Emily Doe. The visceral impact statement she wrote for the trial has circled the globe. It includes passages on how she dealt with her trauma with the help of her family, including “incredible parents who teach me how to turn pain into strength.”
Hendrickson—who worked in private practice before moving to the public sector—credits her own parents with protecting and shaping her, and says the unusual story of her own childhood “informs the person that I am and the prosecutor that I became.”
Her family, through biology and adoption, ultimately included 11 kids: “We ended up with a family that’s Korean, Vietnamese, African-American,” Hendrickson said. “And this was in the ’60s in Virginia.”
Both parents, she emphasizes, inspired her with careers in public service. Her father worked for decades as a lobbyist for the city of Los Angeles; her mother was a teacher who later went on to become a CIA analyst. While Hendrickson says her folks tried to shield their kids from society’s judgments, “I grew up with a sensitivity to bias, [whether] overt or more implicit,” she said. “Every day as a prosecutor, particularly when I was handling cases, I had a sort of a ‘not on my watch’ attitude.... I swore everybody was going to be treated fairly by me in my office.”
Hendrickson, who is beginning to schedule fundraising events, says over and over that she cannot and will not make certain remarks about Persky and the Turner case. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to get around the fact that she’s highlighting a multicultural heritage while preparing to face a judge whose Turner ruling was seen by critics as the ultimate in the spoils of “privilege” enjoyed by people who are members of certain ethnic or social groups.
Dauber told Newsweek she’d support Hendrickson for the bench even if it wasn’t in a recall situation (“She's better qualified — and has better values”) and said the issue is bigger than Turner or Persky.
“We’re able to be out engaging with voters through our participatory democracy process, talking to them about the issue of campus sexual violence and about holding high-status perpetrators accountable,” she said.
Persky did not personally respond to a Newsweek request for comment placed through the court’s media office. While resisting the recall effort through various legal filings, the sitting judge has largely been silent in the press about the campaign to drive him from court.
In July, Persky—who also graduated from Stanford and was cleared of bias by a state commission in December 2016—did address critics in short remarks filed with the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters.
“As a prosecutor, I fought vigorously for victims. As a judge, my role is to consider both sides,” he said, according to a copy of the statement that appears on the pro-Persky website Voices Against Recall. “California law requires every judge to consider rehabilitation and probation for first-time offenders. It’s not always popular, but it’s the law, and I took an oath to follow it without regard to public opinion or my opinions as a former prosecutor.”
Retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, one of many opponents of the Persky recall (and yet another Stanford alum), contacted Newsweek by phone after a reporter reached out to Persky’s office.
“I think it is shameful that any lawyer, particularly a district attorney or a public defender, is stepping up to take advantage of this whole misguided, wrongheaded recall,” said Cordell, who previously taped a robocall arguing vigorously against the attempt to push Persky from the bench.
“This is just trying to find an easy way to get on the bench,” she continued, saying “a recall is not an early election,” that the judiciary has no need for “prosecutors in black robes” on the bench, and that the entire recall effort smacks of “rank opportunism” at best.
“You do not recall a judge because you do not like the sentence that the judge gave,” Cordell argued.
Hendrickson, who filed papers allowing her to begin taking donations in July, has opened a seedling fundraising account on Crowdpac. It’s the same online fundraising platform that allowed Dr. Kathryn Allen to raise tens of thousands of dollars pretty much overnight in an underdog challenge to then-Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz.
Hendrickson’s Crowdpac page says the prosecutor “Seeks Justice for All in Santa Clara County.” Trite, she apologizes, but how else do you say it?
“I’m devoted to every single person in Santa Clara County feeling like when they go to court, they have [a] chance at being heard and having a fair result. Maybe not the result they want, but as fair a result as anybody else,” she said. “The deck is not stacked against them.”
Originally published in Newsweek by Celeste Katz.
Read the original article here.