Judge loses his job over leniency in assault case

Brock Turner will never adequately pay for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on the campus of Stanford University in January 2015. Although the jury found Turner guilty of three felonies that could have sent him to the penitentiary for 14 years and the prosecutor suggested six years, Turner served only three months in the Santa Clara County jail.

Turner’s victim, identified only as Emily Doe, has no memory of the night she was attacked. She got drunk at a fraternity party and passed out after leaving with Turner. But she has the memory of waking up the next morning in the hospital and learning that she had been found with her underwear off, her dress hiked up to her waist and dirt and pine needles in her vagina. No one will ever know what other indignities she may have suffered had two Swedish graduate students not seen Turner assaulting Emily. They stopped him and held him for police.

All this was part of the court record, along with Emily’s 7,000-word victim statement in which she told Turner, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” Her statement was put on line and got millions of views, sparking a national debate.

For his part, Turner tried to convince the court of his good intentions, saying he hoped to educate other young people that “one decision has the potential to change your entire life.” His father, Dan, picked up on the theme, telling the court that his son was paying “a steep price for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

Brock and Dan both worried over how one night might ruin Brock’s life. They should have been more concerned about another life, that of Emily.

Unfortunately, the Turners weren’t the only ones more worried about the effect on Brock than on Emily. Their myopia was shared by Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.

Slap on the wrist

The jury had found Turner guilty of sexual assault of an unconscious person, sexual assault of an intoxicated person and sexual assault with intent to commit rape. In June 2016, Judge Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail, knowing that Turner would be eligible for release in three months, with good behavior. Indeed, Turner was out of jail and on his way home to Dayton before Labor Day.

Tuesday, Santa Clara voters rendered their own verdict. They recalled Judge Persky from office with 60 percent of them voting to end his six-year term four years early.

But perhaps Turner has learned his lesson. Perhaps he’s been busy convincing other young people to lead better lives and to show more respect for themselves and others. No. Turner filed an appeal to his sexual-assault conviction claiming that the encounter was consensual – Emily, he contends, had consented before she passed out.

Judge Persky will have time in his forced retirement to ponder whether it was worth his judicial career to worry more about the “severe impact” prison might have had on Brock Turner than about the impact Turner’s assault had on Emily Doe.

He’s the first California judge to be successfully recalled since 1932. Let him wear that dubious distinction knowing that he earned it by his misplaced concern for a man who even today does not take responsibility for his brutality.

The legal community in Santa Clara County and even many members of the law faculty at Stanford opposed Judge Persky’s recall on the grounds that it might make judges slaves to public opinion rather than judicial impartiality. Actually, judges already have one eye on public opinion. A 2015 Brennan Center for Justice study showed that judges tend to give longer sentences in the period before an election.

When Judge Persky sentenced Turner, he was facing an election – but he was unopposed and the deadline for an opponent to file against him was past. That timing, in fact, energized the recall effort. People who were appalled at his deferential treatment of Turner were horrified at how many times over a new six-year term Judge Persky might ignore the pain of other Emily Does.

California voters have not been abusing their ability to recall judges. If it takes a recall every 85 years or so to remind the judiciary that the pain suffered by victims trumps the pain suffered by their attackers, that’s not too high a price to pay for justice.

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