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Brock Turner judge recall threat sparks debate on justice and leniency

Holly McDede
Michele Dauber during a campaign rally to recall Judge Aaron Persky

When Stanford student Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in prison for sexual assault back in 2016, lots of people thought he deserved a longer sentence. They saw a white, college athlete let off the hook.


This June, Santa Clara county  voters will have a chance to recall the judge who sentenced him, Judge Aaron Persky. But not everyone believes lengthy jail sentences provide justice for victims of sexual violence. Persky spoke publicly against the recall for the first time a few weeks ago. "Judges should be thinking about...what are the facts of the case, what are the legal principles that apply?" Persky said. "They shouldn't be thinking, 'Who is going to hate me if I decide one way or another?'"


The recall initiative has put a spotlight on how issues of punishment, leniency, and justice should play out in cases of sexual crimes. KALW’s Holly J. McDede has the story.



The Campaign to recall judge Aaron Persky


In the fall of 2016, Brock Turner walked out of jail, hopped in his parents’ car, and was whisked away. Throughout the day, a crowd of more than two hundred people gathered outside, protesting because the judge who sentenced him, Aaron Persky, was still on the bench.


“Judge Persky's bias is a threat to the rule of law, and we will continue until he is no longer a judge,” said Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and leader of the Persky recall effort.


She told the crowd that Persky consistently favors privileged athletes over abuse survivors. One example, she said, is that Persky let defendants show photos of a victim in a revealing outfit one year after she was gang raped.


“Supposedly to prove she did not have PTSD from gang rape because she looked happy in the pictures,” Dauber said.


In another case, Dauber said Judge Persky delayed sentencing a football player accused of throwing his girlfriend out of a car. She says Persky wanted to give the athlete a chance to play college football in Hawaii.


“We believe that the handling of this case was not lawful, and we also need to find out if Judge Persky has done this in other instances,” Dauber said.


The botton line was that she wanted Persky gone. If Dauber could get 80,000 signatures, voters would get decide if they want him gone, too.


Campus sexual assault and an unlikely conviction


Dauber’s campaign to recall Judge Persky gathered nearly 95,000 signatures. Now, almost two years later, voters can decide if they really do want him gone.

The recall is on the June ballot, and political experts say it’s unlikely Persky will survive the #MeToo era and stay on the bench.


But before that movement toppled powerful men and before Brock Turner was ever arrested, there was one sexual assault reported nearly every two weeks at Stanford.


Stephanie Pham was a sophomore at Stanford, and she remembers that when the assault first occurred it was little more than a blip in the media.


“Besides that, it was really hush, hush,” Pham says. “No one talked about it. The administration didn’t talk about it,”


When she heard there was a sexual assault on campus, she wasn’t surprised.


What was unique was that this case was reported to the police, and actually went to trial. For every 100 rape cases reported to police, only 30 ever make it to court. In this case, Turner was found guilty.


“We were like, ‘Yes, finally! Finally, we have justice! We might have justice,’” Pham remembers.


Judge Persky’s record


Pham was frustrated when Persky gave Turner six months in jail with three years probation, when an average rape conviction nationwide is eleven years.


“It just became so obvious that rape isn't seen as a crime, it’s not seen as a violent offense, it's seen as this drunk, regrettable action,” Pham says.


Stanford law grad Emi Young had the same initial reaction. “He’s probably getting a break because he’s white and happens to attend a place like Stanford,” Young remembers.


After law professor Michele Dauber set up a recall campaign within days of the sentence, though, Young took a step back and looked more closely at Judge Persky’s track record.


“And I ... really changed my opinion on a lot of things,” she says.


She saw that Judge Persky usually follows the Probation Department’s recommendations, like he did for Turner.


Plus, she says, some of the cases that so outraged Dauber were made through plea bargains where prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on a sentence.


“Attributing that result to Judge Persky is just wrong. He didn't have a hand in it,” Young says.


She thinks the recall sends judges a dangerous message.


“You should be careful about how you show mercy to any particular defendant,” Young says, “because if people don't like it, you might lose your job.”


So, in 2016, Young drafted a letter opposing the recall, and 30 percent of her fellow Stanford law grads signed it. In the letter, she wrote that decades of tough sentences have led to mass incarceration.


Racial bias in the justice system


Charisse Domingo has spent a big chunk of her life helping people of color fight back against long sentences for crimes like drug possession. She says bias soaks into every fabric of the justice system, not just judges.


In San Francisco, where the population is less than 6 percent black, African Americans make up nearly half of all arrests on driving with a suspended license.


African Americans are also 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.


She wants the recall campaign to get angry about that.


“I don't see them rallying and getting outraged at extremely long sentences that are being handed down to the kinds of folks and families that come through our doors here in California, or in Birmingham, any other place that we're at,” Domingo says.


The impact of severe incarceration


Domingo is a community organizer in San Jose. She remembers reading that Judge Persky considered how prison would impact Turner before he sentenced him.


She thinks that if judges looked at poor people of color with that kind of humanity, it would change the whole system.


“I would only hope that a judge would consider the severe impact of incarceration on every single person that is facing sentencing where a judge has discretion,” Domingo says. “I would hope the severe impact of incarceration could be a policy compass.”


She just doesn’t think prison sentences will heal victims — such as the woman Brock Turner sexually assaulted.


“I wonder whether recalling a judge, or, mandatory minimum laws, is going to return this woman to wholeness,” Domingo says. “If we had a justice system that really thought about how do we return people to wholeness, I don't think these options would be there.”


A victim’s letter


Before Brock Turner’s sentencing, the victim asked Judge Persky if she could address Turner directly, and read from a 12 paged letter she wrote.


“We have all been trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment,” she wrote.  “My damage was internal, unseen. I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”


More than five million people read her letter online. Turner did not receive the two year prison sentence the victim wanted. Michele Dauber says it was like Judge Persky didn’t even listen. That’s part of why she started the recall effort.


“Taking this to a vote is forcing him to consider it. It means, You can't ignore her that way,” Dauber says.


What a new judge might mean


Judge Persky didn't follow the victim’s request, but he hasn’t ignored the recall movement.


Actually, he’s set up a campaign to fight it, and he’s filed lawsuits and appeals to block the effort. The State Supreme Court ruled against Persky’s suit in a final blow this month, allowing Santa Clara County voters decide his fate on June 5.


Voters can also choose from two possible female nominees to fill his seat. Many will want the next Santa Clara County judge, whether it’s Persky or one of the women vying for his seat, to prove they take sexual assault seriously.  


That may mean handing down lengthy sentences for those kinds of crimes. For others, a harsh judge is exactly what they’re afraid of.


This story first aired in September 2016, and has since been updated.