Judge in Stanford sexual assault case, who once touted record prosecuting rape, could face recall

Brock Turner's booking mug
Brock Turner's booking mug

When Aaron Persky ran for judge in 2002, he promised Santa Clara County voters he would be “fair, honest, and dedicated to justice for all.”

Persky, the judge who has since drawn national fury for sentencing a former Stanford swimmer to just six months in jail for sexual assault, described himself as an “experienced criminal prosecutor responsible for keeping child molesters and serial rapists off the streets and in custody” in a ballot statement posted at the time to his now-defunct website.

He noted that he had helped “create the county-wide law enforcement policy on hate crimes,” and listed his role on the executive committee of the Support Network for Battered Women.

Persky lost that election but was appointed to the seat the next year by former California Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. Now, 13 years after taking his judgeship, activists furious with his handling of the Stanford sexual assault case are planning how to remove him from the seat.

A jury found Brock Turner, 20, guilty for three counts of sexual assault, including intent to commit rape. Other students caught Turner on top of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, leading to his arrest.

Yet Persky, himself a past Stanford athlete, sentenced Brock Turner to six months in county jail and three years of probation Thursday, though prosecutors had sought six years in prison. The highest sentence that Persky could have imposed was 14 years in state prison.

At the sentencing, Persky said he imposed a lighter sentence given the defendant’s lack of prior criminal history and suggested Turner had “less moral culpability” because he had been drunk when he assaulted the victim.

“Obviously, the prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky added.

The case went viral Friday when the unnamed 23-year-old victim’s impact statement criticizing the sentence was published by news organizations.

“In my opinion, he is old enough to know what he did was wrong. When you are eighteen in this country you can go to war. When you are nineteen, you are old enough to pay the consequences for attempting to rape someone. He is young, but he is old enough to know better,” the unnamed victim wrote.

“As this is a first offence I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense. The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.”

Several petitions seeking to remove Persky from his judgeship had cumulatively gathered more than 316,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning, and Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber said she was starting a recall campaign in Santa Clara County.

“He has made women at Stanford and across California less safe,” Dauber, a family friend of the victim, told The Guardian. “The judge bent over backwards in order to make an exception … and the message to women and students is ‘you’re on your own,’ and the message to potential perpetrators is, ‘I’ve got your back.’”

There are a few options for how voters could recall Persky. A petition signed by almost 81,000 registered county voters could trigger a recall election, though under California law, the signatures would have to be collected in 160 days. The deadline to do so in time for the November election would be Aug. 12.

“I don’t imagine how they could get all of that process, that usually takes six to eight months, done in two months,” registrar of voters Shannon Bushey told BuzzFeed News, adding that the route was “very, very unlikely,”

Another possibility would be recruiting someone to run against Persky as a write-in candidate, since he is currently unopposed. That person would have to file paperwork by Aug. 17, giving voters the ability to write in a name on the blank line on the ballot.