Early last year, two Stanford University graduate students caught a young man on top of a half-naked, unconscious woman behind a dumpster. One shouted, “What the f— are you doing?”
Brock Turner, then a freshman and All-American swimmer at the school, didn’t reply. Instead, he took off running. The graduate students tackled him, according to court testimony, and held him until police arrived. Turner’s victim later woke on a gurney, covered in dirt and pine needles.
Most people accused of rape are never found guilty — the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates 97 of 100 avoid punishment. Turner’s crime, however, had witnesses. He was charged with three felonies related to sexual assault and convicted in March on all counts. He faced a maximum prison sentence of 14 years, with prosecutors recommending six.
But last week, Judge Aaron Persky leveled instead a punishment that ignited fury nationwide: Six months in the county jail, followed by three years’ probation.
The penalty sharply deviated from the sentencing norm. The majority of convicted rapists in the United States go to prison. The average sentence length is 11 years, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
Turner, to be sure, was not convicted of rape. The two rape charges he originally faced were dropped. But at least two of the three remaining charges — assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object — fall under the Justice Department's definition of rape: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
The United States Sentencing Commission, which establishes sentencing guidelines and policies for federal courts, recommends between eight and 20 years for convicted rapists, depending on the age of the victim, the extent of their injuries and whether they were kidnapped.
Judges in local courts, meanwhile, generally decide punishments based on the severity of the offense and the defendant's criminal record.
So how could Turner, 20, commit a violent crime and get away with what many are calling a slap on the wrist?
To begin: He’s not the first.
About 84 percent of convicted rapists in 2009 were sentenced to prison, according to the most recent BJS analysis of America’s 75 largest counties. Five percent went to jail, which often serves as a more temporary holding space. Eleven percent received probation or “other.”
Turner, whose school portrait in a crisp black blazer has been shared widely, fell into that slim minority. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him," Persky said at Turner's sentencing. "I think he will not be a danger to others."
Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said every sexual assault case is different, but the question the judge faces remains the same: What punishment is in society's best interest?
“There’s no easy answer,” he said. “Exposing people to the criminal justice system for long period of time does not make them better. In fact, you could take a marginal offender and turn them into a chronic offender by exposing them to the prison environment.”
Not to dismiss Turner’s actions, he added.
“It was more than getting drunk and out of control,” he said. “People get drunk all the time and don’t commit a sexual assault.”
Josh Marquis, an Oregon district attorney and sexual assault case veteran, said it’s possible the California judge was embracing restorative justice, a philosophy that focuses on criminal rehabilitation. The approach, he said, best applies to young or first-time offenders who have damaged, say, property.
“This is an insane idea for homicide and rape,” Marquis said. "Will 20 years in prison make [Turner] a better man? Probably not. But he savagely voided the social contract when he did what he did."
Marquis recalls a 2013 sentence in Montana, where a teacher was ordered to serve 30 days in prison for raping his student, a 14-year-old girl. "She seemed older than her chronological age," District Judge G. Todd Baugh said at the time. (The girl committed suicide during the trial.) Following a national outcry and a determination by the Montana Supreme Court that the sentence was inappropriate, the teacher was resentenced to 10 years.
In 2014, a Dallas County judge sentenced a man who admitted he raped a 14-year-old girl to five years’ probation. State District Judge Jeanine Howard said the sex offender didn’t deserve prison because the girl was not a virgin and “wasn’t the victim she claimed to be,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
Claudia Bayliff, a Virginia lawyer who has advised the U.S. military on sexual assault prevention, said persistent misconceptions about sexual assault can affect a judge’s reasoning.
“If you ask someone on the street what a rapist looks like, they’ll tell you a stranger with a ski mask and a gun,” Bayliff said. “You get this superstar athlete white kid from a fancy university, and he doesn’t fit that image.”
The victims, she said, are often portrayed as "bringing it on themselves." Multiple news outlets reported Turner's victim had a blood alcohol level of three times the legal driving limit, though she wasn't behind the wheel.
Because of this bias, Bayliff said, Turner’s attack could be interpreted as an alcohol-fueled mistake. That’s how his father saw it, according to an open letter he wrote about his son’s convictions.
“His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” Dan A. Turner wrote. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
By Monday afternoon, a petition to remove Judge Persky from the bench had garnered 75,000 signatures. “He… failed to send the message that sexual assault is against the law,” the author wrote, “regardless of social class, race, gender or other factors.”
Turner’s victim, meanwhile, read aloud an impact statement in court that has since gone viral.
“As this is a first offence I can see where leniency would beckon,” she wrote. “On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense. The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.
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