The judge in a controversial sexual assault case said that he believed the defendant felt genuine remorse, according to newly released court documents in which he explains the reasoning behind a sentence that has ignited fierce debate.
The case, in which a former Stanford University varsity swimmer sexually assaulted a woman who was unconscious after drinking at a fraternity party, has drawn widespread scrutiny, crystallizing the issue of campus sexual assault and its impact. And Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky’s sentence provoked outrage, including a push to recall him from the bench, protests, more than a million signatures on online petitions opposing him, even death threats.
Brock Turner, who was a freshman at the time of the January 2015 crime, was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in county jail, three years probation and a requirement that he register as a sex offender. Prosecutors had asked for six years in state prison.
Persky is not able to comment on the case because an appeal is pending. Several colleagues have defended him as scrupulously fair, smart, and said he is very well respected in the legal community there.
On Saturday, according to Palo Alto Weekly, one of the 12 jurors delivered a letter to Persky, telling him, “This punishment does not fit the crime.”
The juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity but whose role on the jury was confirmed by the publication, told the Palo Alto Weekly he was “absolutely shocked and appalled” by the sentence, and shared his letter to Persky, which read, in part:
During the sentencing, you said, “The trial is a search for the truth. It’s an imperfect process. But after the trial all sides should accept the jury’s findings.” It seems to me that you really did not accept the jury’s findings. …
Justice has not been served in this case. The jury’s verdict of guilt on all three felony counts of sexual assault was completely disregarded in an effort to spare the perpetrator a ‘hardship’. What message does this send to [the victim], and indeed all victims of sexual assault and rape, especially those on college campuses? Your concern was for the impact on the assailant. I vehemently disagree, our concern should be for the victim.
Shame on you.
The transcript from the sentencing hearing includes the victim’s searing 12-page statement — which went viral after it was published on Buzzfeed, generated intense scrutiny on the case, and prompted Vice President Joseph Biden to write a long letter in response. The victim’s statement read, in part:
In the newspapers, my name was “Unconscious, intoxicated woman” — ten syllables and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was, that I am just a drunk victim at a frat party, discarded behind a Dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. …
While you worry about your shattered reputation, I refrigerated spoons every night. So when I woke up and my eyes were puffy from crying, I would hold the spoons to my eyes to lessen the swelling so that I could see.
Alaleh Kianerci, deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, told the judge at the sentencing hearing that this was a sexual assault between strangers, and any attempt to frame it as a misunderstanding or flirtation is flat-out false, she said, according to court documents.
In determining sentencing, she said it was not necessary to vilify Turner; he is not evil, she said. But he made a serious mistake, she said, one for which the legislature recommends prison as an appropriate punishment.
She argued that the court must decide whether to treat the crime as others had in the past, minimizing it because it happened on a college campus, involved people drinking, “discounting the victim’s worth because the defendant had such a bright future?”
The court could focus on what Turner had to lose rather than what the victim already lost, she said, or it could take a stand: To show Turner his actions would not be tolerated and would have severe consequences.
The reality, she said, is that the decision “will reverberate far beyond this courtroom.”
Kianerci did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Brock Turner’s father, Dan A. Turner, said during the hearing that “In many one-on-one conversations with Brock since that day, I can tell you that he is truly sorry for what occurred that night and for all the pain and suffering that it has caused for all those involved and impacted by that night. He has expressed true remorse for his actions on that night.” He said that the fact that his son will have to register as a sex offender will affect the rest of his life.
But it was a phrase later in his statement — “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action” — that was singled out and shared on social media, prompting outrage over his perceived concern for his son rather than the victim. “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” Dan A. Turner wrote in the letter. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
Brock Turner then spoke, saying, in part: “Every day, my mind, my heart, and my body agonize over the suffering and pain I have caused,” he said, not only to the victim but to her family and friends. It was unbearable, he said, to think that his actions that night caused good people so much pain and sorrow.
“Nobody deserves a single second of what I have caused them to go through,” he said. “I can never forgive myself for what happened and the consequences that it had.”
Defense attorney Michael Armstrong then noted that Turner had never denied the act of digital penetration. “What he tried to do at trial — and — and it’s still his perception — was to explain that, in his drunken state, he remembered consent.”
Armstrong said that several people, including the victim, had said Turner needed counseling, therapy and education to help him better understand what he had done and to be a better person, and that probation was the best way to accomplish that. Those who work regularly in the prison system, he said, would understand that those positive things were very unlikely to happen in prison.
Armstrong did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Persky read some passages from the victim’s statement, which he called eloquent, including this: “You should have never done this to me. Secondly, you should never have made me fight so long to tell you you should never have done this to me. But here we are. The damage is done. No one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us. I can remain angry and hurt, and you can be in denial. Or we can face it head on: I accept the pain; you accept the punishment; and we move on.”
Persky said he would recommend probation, as called for in the probation report, with six months in county jail.
“I acknowledge the devastation,” he said, of the crime and the trial and the intense publicity, that had “poisoned the lives” of people affected by Turner’s actions.
The question he asked himself, he said, was whether state prison was the antidote for that poison — in effect, whether prison time would cure the poisoning of the victim’s life.
Probation is prohibited for such cases, he explained, except in unusual cases in which justice would best be served by it. He detailed the factors that he balanced in considering his decision, including intoxication, lack of a weapon, lack of criminal sophistication.
The probation officer argued that the presence of alcohol made the circumstances less serious than typical cases. Persky said the argument could be made that someone who was sober would be more morally culpable of such a crime than someone who was very drunk. That circumstance alone didn’t meet the legal requirement of substantially less serious facts or circumstances, he said; he also noted it’s not an excuse.
Turner’s youth — he is 20 — and lack of criminal convictions led Persky to consider probation, he said. Evidence from the prosecution about a pending case for possession of alcohol as a minor, and cell phone messages about drug use were not enough to negate the lack of convictions, he said.
The victim was extremely vulnerable. The impact was emotionally devastating, he said, which was a factor against probation, as was the fact that Turner was an active participant.
But letters from friends and family praising Turner’s character, his ability to comply with probation and the severe impact a prison sentence would have on him influenced Persky. He cited the lasting impact of the sex offender label and requirements, and the trial publicity on Turner.
He said he believed Turner felt genuine remorse.
He acknowledged that the victim believed Turner didn’t understand what he had done. Turner’s lawyer had argued that Turner believed he had the victim’s consent. “I take him at his word that, subjectively, that’s his version of events,” Persky said, according to court documents. In essence, he said the defendant doesn’t have to agree with the verdict to feel truly sorry.
He did not think Turner would be a danger to others. He again referred to the character letters, including one from a friend of Turner’s since elementary school, who said she never would have believed Turner would be in this position.
That rang true for him, Persky said, seeing a person who had done well in life until that night.
(That letter from a longtime friend offended some people with lines such as, “I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next 10-plus years of his life on the decision of the girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank to press charges against him. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campus isn’t always because people are rapists?” The woman has since apologized for the letter, saying she had no right to make assumptions about that night and did not acknowledge strongly enough the severity of the crime and the victim’s suffering.)
Justice would best be served, Persky concluded, with probation.
Kianerci responded, according to court documents, that she could not understand how it was not even the maximum time in county jail, but just six months. Turner was required to register as a sex offender to protect others, she said, and that shouldn’t be used to decrease his sentence.
She said Turner might believe that he had gotten consent, but the jurors did not agree, knowing that the victim was unconscious for hours afterward. She referred to the character letter that Persky cited, and countered that the sad reality is that sexual assaults are committed by people you would never expect to do such a thing — nice guys, the guy next door.
“The fact that he looks a certain way,” she said, “should not give him any more leniency.”