When Judge Aaron Persky sentenced a Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted a woman behind a dumpster to six months in jail, critics came up with a slew of reasons for what they viewed as a frustratingly lenient punishment.
Persky, they said, was biased against women and didn’t take sexual assault seriously. They accused him of giving Brock Turner a light sentence because he was affluent and white. They even said Persky was biased because he, too, had been a student-athlete at Stanford.
But as the criticism against the judge intensified — aided by a stirring letter written by the victim, who said Turner “took away my worth” — Persky remained silent.
Now, almost a year later, as the judge is fighting an energized effort to recall him, he has started to speak publicly in his defense.
That includes a 198-word statement filed with the Santa Clara County registrar’s office last week. The statement doesn’t mention Turner’s case by name but alludes to Persky’s efforts to balance rehabilitation and probation for first-time offenders. If approved by the registrar, it will appear on the ballot that voters will see as they decide whether Persky deserves to keep his job.
The San Jose Mercury-Mews posted the entire statement on its website:
“As a prosecutor, I fought vigorously for victims. As a judge, my role is to consider both sides. California law requires every judge to consider rehabilitation and probation for first-time offenders. It’s not always popular, but it’s the law, and I took an oath to follow it without regard to public opinion or my opinions as a former prosecutor.”
In March 2016, Turner was convicted of three sex crimes — all felonies — after he sexually assaulted a woman who’d passed out behind a dumpster outside a frat party. Two graduate students saw the crime in progress and confronted Turner, who tried to run away. The graduate students caught and pinned Turner to the ground and called police.
The trial made national headlines, but its ending was controversial. For the felonies, Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail. Because of good behavior, he was released after three.
The short stint in jail angered many people, who said it was too small a price to pay for sexually assaulting a woman.
Turner’s father didn’t exactly make things better. Dan A. Turner penned a letter arguing that his son should have received probation, not jail time. Critics called the letter “tone-deaf” and “impossibly offensive.”
“His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” the older 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.”
Although Brock Turner could not be retried, aggrieved voters still had another recourse: kick Persky out of office.
The woman Turner assaulted also released a powerful public statement in which she called Turner’s jail sentence “a soft timeout.” More than a million people signed a Change.org petition calling for Persky’s removal from the bench, while others took to social media to vent their frustrations.
Last week, 50 Californians filed a petition to recall Persky.
“Today we take the first step,” Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford law professor who is leading the recall committee seeking Persky’s removal, said Monday after filing the petition. “Judge Persky has a long history of leniency in cases involving sexual assault. Here in Silicon Valley, women have had enough.”
But Persky and his supporters say the recall effort tries to incorrectly frame his two-decade legal career by a single, controversial case. On his website fighting the recall, he speaks of his career of going after sexual predators and cited independent analyses that concluded he was a fair judge.
“I have heard thousands of cases,” he said. “I have a reputation for being fair to both sides.”
On Friday, Dauber, who is a friend of Brock Turner’s victim and an activist against campus sexual assault, took issue with the judge’s defense of his fairness — and his record.
“Judge Persky did not just make a single bad decision,” Dauber said. “He made a slew of bad decisions involving sex crimes and violence against women.”