Making sense of the Stanford sexual assault case

Brock Turner, 20, right, makes his way to Santa Clara Superior Court. He was convicted of attempted rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object.
Brock Turner, 20, right, makes his way to Santa Clara Superior Court. He was convicted of attempted rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object. The Associated Press

“Your Honor, if it is all right, for the majority of this statement I would like to address the defendant directly. You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today….”

Those words, the start of a 7,000-plus-word speech to the Stanford swimmer convicted of drunkenly and sexually assaulting a passed-out woman in January outside a fraternity party, have now been viewed on the internet more than 15 million times.

They have prompted international fury and online petitions signed by more than a million viewers. They have stirred floor speeches in Congress and Vice President Joe Biden’s sympathy.

Here in California, they have prompted calls for the removal of Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, the former sex crimes prosecutor – and one-time Stanford athlete – who sentenced Brock Turner to a mere six months in county jail plus three years probation for a conviction ordinarily punishable by two to 14 years in prison.

The recall effort is non-trivial, as they say in Silicon Valley; it is being led by a Stanford law professor and a deep-pocketed super PAC, Progressive Women Silicon Valley, and they have enlisted well-known political operative Joe Trippi to help them collect the more than 58,000 signatures from Santa Clara County voters that they need.

The case, like so many such cases, is wrenching from every angle.

The 22-year-old woman is, as her statement powerfully details, scarred and traumatized.

Turner’s preposterously light jail term notwithstanding – the 20-year-old could serve as little as three months, with good behavior – he will still have to register from now on as a sex offender, and thanks to the internet, his name is now synonymous around the world with campus rape.

The 54-year-old judge – appointed in 2003 by Gov. Gray Davis and defended by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike as one of the county’s fairest – will now become a human political flashpoint, just as public sentiment here and nationally was starting to swing, laudably, toward more judicial discretion.

Other than the two Swedish graduate students who chased Turner down as he staggered away from the unconscious woman, and attention the victim’s statement has brought to the devastation that sexual assault causes, it’s hard to see much good in any of this.

But it’s easy to see worse coming to pass if this case, disturbing as it is, isn’t kept in perspective. California has a long history with high-profile crime.

The outcries against an insufficiently tough bench that grew out of the Polly Klaas murder led to decades of inflexibility that undermined faith in the system, incarcerating too many people for far too long with too little left to judges’, well, judgment.

That inflexibility has been especially devastating to those who can’t afford top-of-the-line defense attorneys. The sense that white, privileged Brock Turner got a deal that no poor, brown defendant would ever have gotten is, in part, an outgrowth of that distortion, and one reason this case has generated such fury, aside from the victim’s eloquence.

Persky’s sentence was too lenient, but it wasn’t unlawful. That’s why prosecutors haven’t appealed it and don’t support a recall.

Agree with it or not, the judge did what judges are supposed to do: Look at the evidence, listen to all sides, and use his discretion.

Turner wasn’t tried for rape, legally speaking. In California, rape requires sexual intercourse and DNA testing didn’t support such charges. Rather, he was convicted of assault with intent to commit rape and sexually penetrating an intoxicated, unconscious person with a foreign object (his finger).

It was a first offense, and the judge said he took that into account, along with the recommendation of the female probation officer who had cited Turner’s youth and intoxication (twice the legal blood-alcohol level). By law, Persky also considered the victim.

His decision may not have sent the message preferred by advocates, or by the victim, or even by many thinking observers in a society where attitudes about sexual violence have changed, for the better. But judges aren’t there to send messages; they’re there to do the nuanced job of dispensing justice, however imperfect.

Santa Clara County will decide whether one stunningly bad call should cost Persky his judgeship. But in the meantime, the rest of us might want to focus on how to avert such tragedies in the first place.

One way to start might be to make that victim’s statement required reading by every young man and young woman. No high school sex education lesson would add more value. No orientation for incoming college freshmen would be more instructive. Now that would set a precedent.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee