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‘Repugnant’ — or ‘fair’? Debate erupts over judge’s decision in Stanford sexual assault case

Why this California judge faces a recall effort (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The six-month sentence handed down to a former Stanford University student in a high-profile sexual assault case has been met with outrage — much of it aimed at the judge.

Prosecutors argued that Brock Turner’s three felony convictions should have landed him in state prison for six years. Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sent Turner instead to the county jail, as probation officials recommended.

“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky said, citing Turner’s age, 20, and his lack of criminal history — comments and reasoning that have landed the judge in the middle of a national firestorm and made him the subject of searing criticism.

State legislators have called Persky’s decision “baffling and repugnant.” And a recall effort has garnered thousands of signatures to an online petition and thousands in donations to the campaign, said Michele Dauber, a Stanford Law School professor who was outraged by the sentencing.

Dauber, who is friends with the victim in the case, said she is confident the effort would “replace Aaron Persky with someone who has an understanding of violence against women.”

Persky cannot comment because of the appeals process, said Joe Macaluso, public information officer for the court.

To those who have worked with Persky in the legal community, the attacks on his judgment are shocking in their own right. They describe the judge as an intelligent jurist who knows the law and carefully applies it.

Before his time on the bench, Persky worked as a prosecutor for the district attorney’s office. A public defender who often argued cases against him said Perksy would aggressively and effectively argue to have sexually violent predators stay in prison, asking for their terms to be extended because he believed they continued to pose a threat.

The lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity because the Stanford case has been so divisive in their community, said Persky would find victims from even decades-old cases to prevent defense attorneys from gaining the convicted offenders’ release from prison.

“You took away my worth.” A sexual assault victim speaks to a former Stanford student

Persky argued those types of cases before Robert Foley, a veteran judge who said he was “absolutely one of the best lawyers who ever appeared in my court.” Persky often appeared in Foley’s courtroom, where, the judge said, he was “credible, ethical and honest.”

“He’s as solid as a rock, and I would take any case before him and I know I would get a fair judgement,” Foley said.

Two Democratic state legislators are now calling for Persky’s resignation. California assemblywomen Cristina Garcia and Susan Talamantes Eggman said if he does not step down, they will exhaust other measures for holding him accountable.

Eggman called the sentencing an outrage.

“Judge Persky’s decision is baffling and repugnant, especially given the rapist’s refusal to accept his guilt, and to instead blame ‘drinking culture,’ which is an obvious attempt at blaming the victim,” she said in a statement. (Turner was not convicted of rape but was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges at trial.) “Six months in the county lockup is a sentence so lenient it sends a clear message that rape will not be treated seriously.”

Garcia, vice chair of the Legislative Women’s Caucus, said in a statement that “the judicial process put this victim on trial and the judge has reduced his sentence to no more than an inconvenience.”

A Stanford and U.C. Berkeley Law alumnus, Persky was captain of Stanford’s club lacrosse team and wrote music columns for the student newspaper as an undergraduate. He came to the bench after years working in a private law firm and then as a prosecutor.

In his 2002 campaign literature, when he was a candidate for judge, Persky described himself as prosecuting “sexually violent predators, working to keep the most dangerous sex offenders in custody in mental hospitals.”

A San Jose Mercury News editorial backed Persky’s 2002 bid, referring to him as “articulate and smart, pleasant and low-key. Given the opportunity, he could become a star jurist who could ascend on the bench.”

Persky lost the election for a Superior Court seat, but the following year, then-Gov. Gray Davis (D) appointed him to the bench to fill a vacancy left by another judge who had departed for a higher court. Davis was not available for an interview, another attorney who works at the same law firm as the former governor told The Washington Post in an email.

Persky is not seen as a judge who favors either the defense or prosecutors, said Sam Polverino, an attorney who has been practicing in Santa Clara County for 35 years.

“It’s easy to paint with a broad brush,” said Polverino, a former president of the bar association. “It’s easy to just impose a very harsh sentence to look like you’re a tough judge.”

But, he said, “it takes backbone to actually weigh and balance” all the factors and evidence in a case.

Andy Gutierrez, a deputy public defender in Santa Clara County, said many colleagues would not hesitate to take a difficult case to the judge, because they know he will treat each one on its merits and not be swayed by public sentiment. He said that while he sometimes hears reports of certain judges treating their clients, especially minority clients, unfairly, he has never heard that complaint about Persky.

“To the contrary, he has gone out of his way to improve our criminal justice system and, where possible, soften the harsher edges of the criminal justice system in regards to its treatment of indigent persons,” he wrote in an email.

For that reason, Gutierrez is skeptical of claims that Persky granted probation to Turner just because of his race or socioeconomic status – even though he knows that does happen.

“All I can say is that from my experience, where most of my clients are from poor socioeconomic backgrounds and from communities of color, Judge Persky has been a fair and decent man,” he wrote.

The Turner case was already a flashpoint in the national debate about campus sexual assault, but reaction to it intensified after an eloquent and painful 12-page letter from the victim became public.

“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today,” she wrote.

“A steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”: Dad defends former Stanford sex offender

The case file includes a report from a probation officer, which notes a conversation between the officer and the victim.

“I want him to be punished, but as a human, I just want him to get better,” the victim said, according to the probation officer’s report. “I don’t want him to feel like his life is over and I don’t want him to rot away in jail; he doesn’t need to be behind bars.”

In her statement to the court, however, the victim said her words were misinterpreted.

“When I read the probation officer’s report, I was in disbelief, consumed by anger which eventually quieted down to profound sadness,” she wrote in her statement. “My statements have been slimmed down to distortion and taken out of context.”

In the statement, she disputed part of the account, and called the probation officer’s recommendation “a soft time­out, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, an insult to me and all women.”

The victim also called the sentence “light” in an interview with Buzzfeed.

“Even if the sentence is light, hopefully this will wake people up,” she told the website. “I want the judge to know that he ignited a tiny fire. If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.”

Turner has voluntarily withdrawn from Stanford and has been banned from the university, according to a spokeswoman.

For some, the case became a symbol of a broken-down system in which sexual assault is treated differently when an accused is an elite student, athlete or campus leader.

Critics of Persky have pointed to his decision in an earlier case, from 2011, the Mercury News noted. In that case, De Anza College baseball players were accused of raping a 17-year-old girl at an off-campus party. After the local prosecutor declined to bring criminal charges — a decision that in part led to her defeat in an election — the girl sought $7.5 million in damages via a civil lawsuit.

During the trial, Persky allowed the defense to show the jury photos of the young woman, arguing the pictures were a “direct contradiction” to the notion that the woman was socially isolated. Persky rejected the defense’s request to enter another, potentially incriminating photo after trial testimony ended.

A six-month sentence in Stanford sexual assault case leads to a push to recall the judge

Reaction to his sentencing of Turner was swift. By Wednesday, more than 700,000 digital signatures had been added to one online petition calling for him to be removed from the bench.

Persky has received threats in the wake of his decision, according to Gary Goodman, deputy public defender in Santa Clara County and the supervising attorney in the Palo Alto office. Goodman said he was was alarmed that someone he described as level-headed, smart and respectful would be targeted in such a vindictive way.

“While I strongly disagree with the sentence that Judge Persky issued in the Brock Turner case I do not believe he should be removed from his judgeship,” Jeffrey Rosen, the district attorney for Santa Clara County, said in a written statement. “I am so pleased that the victim’s powerful and true statements about the devastation of campus sexual assault are being heard across our nation. She has given voice to thousands of sexual assault survivors.”

A spokesman for Rosen declined to answer questions about Persky.