National outrage erupted earlier this month after Brock Turner, a convicted rapist, was given a six-month sentence in county jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on Stanford’s campus in January 2015.
Turner was found guilty in March on three felony counts of sexual assault. While prosecutors asked for a six-year sentence—even less than the 14 year maximum allowed by California law—Santa Clara County Superior Court judge Aaron Persky, a Stanford alumnus, handed down a mere six months in county jail and three years of probation, saying “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner.
Critics were quick to point out the problematic nature of the judge’s lenient sentence, not the least of which was that the statutory minimum sentence for Turner’s crimes is two years.
But it was the survivor’s letter detailing the severe impact that Turner’s attack had on her that catapulted the story into the national spotlight. The letter, which she read at Turner’s sentencing hearing, details how she was “irreversibly hurt, [her] life put on hold for over a year, waiting to figure out if [she] was worth something.” The letter, published on BuzzFeed, was a rebuke of the way the system deals with sexual assault and how privilege was used throughout the trial. The piece has since gone viral, being viewed more than five million times.
Adding fuel to the public outcry, Dan Turner, Brock Turner’s father, wrote his own letter to the judge callously referring to the assault as “20 minutes of action” and attributing his son’s crimes to a “culture of alcohol consumption and partying.” The father’s letter echoes some of the same rape apologia that Persky showed in his sentencing report – that the “unusual circumstances” of Brock Turner’s case justified the light sentence. It is important to note that the only “unusual circumstances” Persky goes on to outline include Turner’s status as an elite swimmer, his age and lack of a criminal history.
In her statement, Turner’s victim asked, “If a first-time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be?” The white privilege demonstrated by Turner and Persky is astounding, and has sparked another conversation about the many injustices in America’s criminal justice system.
In an op-ed, Marco Barbery noted, “How much more severe the sentence would have been if Turner’s skin were several shades darker, if his parents had been unable to post $150,000 bond or hire a defense team that managed to lose at trial but win at sentencing. If being white and educated in America is mitigating, then being black and uneducated is aggravating.”
Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and sociologist who led the charge to revise Stanford’s sexual assault policy, has since organized a recall challenge to Judge Persky, who can be removed from office in the November 2017 election. Just today, Persky was taken off a new sexual assault case at the request of prosecutors.