The first rape threat came to Michele Dauber in an envelope that exploded in glitter upon opening — a “glitter bomb” courtesy of ShipYourEnemiesGlitter.com.
Inside, there was also a note: “Since you are going to disrobe [Judge Aaron] Persky, I am going to treat you like ‘Emily Doe’. Let’s see what kind of sentencing I get for being a rich white male.”
“Emily Doe” was the young woman sexually assaulted by Brock Turner behind a dumpster in 2015, a case that led to national outrage when Persky sentenced Turner, a Stanford swimmer, to six months in jail and three years’ probation for the three felony counts of sexual assault.
Dauber, chairwoman of the “Recall Persky Campaign,” is the woman trying to disrobe Persky, a California Superior Court judge.
The second rape threat came about a week later, bearing the same words. This time, on Valentine’s Day, there was white powder inside instead of glitter.
“It was one of those things when time slowed down a little bit,” Dauber, a Stanford University law professor, told The Washington Post in an interview Monday.
The threats come at a time of escalating tensions between those supporting and opposing Persky’s removal, which Dauber says appears to have emboldened some of Persky’s more ardent supporters to target her personally and more aggressively. Such hostility, Dauber said, seemed to increase in the weeks after the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters on Jan. 23 approved the Recall Persky Campaign’s petition to be on the ballot in June, after it attained more than 94,000 signatures.
After the Feb. 14 threat containing the suspicious white substance, Stanford evacuated parts of the law school building while authorities sought to determine whether the substance was harmful. Ultimately, Stanford said in a statement, the substance was found to be harmless — but Dauber said the case has since been referred to the FBI for investigation. (The FBI in San Francisco said in a statement to The Washington Post that it could neither confirm nor deny the existence of the investigation.)
“It’s been upsetting and scary, but I think it’s very important that the campaign goes forward,” Dauber said. “We’re not going to be intimidated. We’re going to keep advocating for survivors of sexual assault and of violence against women. I think it’s very important to send a message that we’re not deterred.”
After Dauber and dozens of others disturbed by Brock Turner’s sentence launched the campaign to remove Persky, the judge’s own supporters fired back with their own campaign: Voices Against Recall.
The group says the effort to remove Persky is misguided, based on outrage over a single sentencing decision, and that recalling a duly elected judge poses a threat to judicial independence.
As Erwin Chemerinsky, dean and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, wrote in a commentary for the Sacramento Bee: “If there is disagreement with a judge’s decision, the appropriate remedy is to appeal the ruling, not to seek removal of the judge. Such recall efforts are a serious threat to judicial independence as judges will fear that unpopular rulings will cost them their jobs. Justice, and all of us, will suffer when judges base their decisions on what will satisfy the voters.”
LaDoris Cordell, a retired California judge and one of the loudest voices supporting Persky, told CNN she believes that if the recall were successful, the urge to appease voters would end up negatively affecting defendants of color in the criminal justice system. She said Persky is a “good and fair judge who did absolutely nothing wrong” and that Dauber’s campaign was based on lies and distortions.
“Black and brown people are going to be impacted, because judges, if this recall succeeds, are going to be looking over their shoulders and testing the wind to see if their sentencing decisions are going to be popular. If they want to be lenient, particularly in a sexual assault case, they’re not going to do it, and most of the people coming into the criminal justice system, at least in this county, are black and brown people. This is terrible for racial justice.”
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, whose office prosecuted the Brock Turner case, denounced Persky’s sentencing decision in a statement that also opposed the recall.
In response to her critics, Dauber said that “it’s very difficult to say ‘he abused his discretion’ on the one hand, then on the other hand that voters should do nothing about it.”
Dauber rejected the argument that her recall effort would influence judges’ sentencing decisions across the board because of fear of public opinion. California judges, she said, are elected and, therefore, always accountable to voters to some degree when they face reelection. Recalls do nothing more than expedite the date of that reelection campaign, she said.
“The recall is a constitutional right of voters. It’s a feature, not a bug, of our system,” she said, adding: “Our campaign is extremely carefully messaged and aimed at high-status white college athletes who have committed violence against women, and I don’t think judges will be so illogical that, because of our campaign, they need to increase sentences for poor minority drug offenders. I think that’s nonsense, and I think there’s nothing to support that.”
Dauber maintained that this campaign isn’t simply about the Brock Turner case; she cited various other instances in which Persky appeared lenient on college athletes. (Critics have pointed out that they are not all white, high-status men.) In one case, Persky delayed for more than a year sentencing Ikaika Gunderson, who was convicted of domestic violence, so he could go play football at the University of Hawaii.
Persky could not immediately be reached for comment. He has declined to comment on the recall effort because of laws limiting judges’ public statements during campaigns.
On the Voice Against Recall campaign website, however, Persky said in a statement: “When I became a judge, my role changed — I am required 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 any personal opinions I might have as a former prosecutor.”
Persky is not sitting on the same bench in the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County as he was when he sentenced Turner in 2016. Months afterward, in August 2016, he sought and received permission to swap places with a civil court judge. His goal was to reduce the “distractions that threaten to interfere with his ability to effectively discharge the duties of his current criminal assignment,” the presiding judge said in a statement.
Starting in 2018, Persky switched positions again at his own request, and is now the on-call weekend night judge, working from home.
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