Since California Judge Aaron Persky handed Brock Turner what many are calling a lenient sentence, there have been calls for his removal, including two petitions for his recall. Turner, an ex-Stanford student, was arrested in 2015 after he was caught raping an unconscious woman. Though he was initially charged with five felony counts, it was later reduced to three, including assault with intent to commit rape and sexual penetration of an unconscious person. He was convicted of all three felonies on March 30, 2016, and sentenced last Thursday, June 2.
During his sentencing, the victim read part of the victim’s impact statement submitted to Persky, the sentencing judge. The statement—a powerful rebuttal of Turner’s refusal to take any kind of responsibility for his actions and choice to blame his violence on campus drinking culture and hookups—was initially released to the public by the prosecutor last Friday. It went viral after Buzzfeed posted it as an “open letter” and was subsequently read on air by CNN’s Ashley Banfield.
In the victim’s impact statement, the anonymous woman asked that Persky hand out “proper punishment.” She also rebutted Turner’s defense point by point, noting a broader culture that sought to protect Turner and his athletic accomplishments. “In newspapers, my name was ‘unconscious intoxicated woman,’ ten syllables, and nothing more than that,” she wrote. She continued:
“For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, who waited a year to figure out if I was worth something.”
Though the maximum sentence for Turner’s crimes is 10 years, the prosecutors in the case asked that he be sentenced to six years in state prison. The probation officer in the case called for a more lenient sentence, pointing to Turner’s prior behavior and lack of criminal history. Persky, who—as many have pointed out—is a Stanford alumnus and former lacrosse player, sided with the probation officer and sentenced Turner to six months in county jail. In all likelihood, Turner will serve only three months. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him… I think he will not be a danger to others,” Persky said during sentencing.
The complexity and honesty of the victim’s letter is staggering, particularly when compared to the callousness of the responses by Persky, as well as Turner himself, as well as his father and friends. The gap between the two ways of speaking—a plea for humanity versus a plea for impunity—is obvious proof of a cultural sickness that often feels incurable, which today is often called rape culture.
Turner’s case is a persistent reminder of this sickness, of rape culture: that the right kind of men—white, talented, athletic—are deeply protected by structural hierarchies, from the legal system to a public culture that can’t possibly perceive men like Brock Turner as criminals. Their mugshots are hidden; their reputations are protected. What does it matter anyway? It was only “20 minutes of action.” It often seems as though the powerful collude to protect certain kinds of criminals, lessening the impact of the crime, removing the victim from the equation; reducing her to “unconscious intoxicated woman,” a succinct phrase invoking an imaginary perfect victim, a phrase that seems as neutral as it is certainly not.
Persky, in particular, has become the subject of wrath, of more than just campaigns to remove him from the bench. The Daily Beast reported on Persky’s 2002 campaign for judgeship, during which he ran on a record of prosecuting sex crimes. “I focus on the prosecution of sexually violent predators, working to keep the most dangerous sex offenders in custody in mental hospitals,” he wrote in a 2002 biography. The Daily Dot noted that two petitions in circulation urged signers to send the following complaint to the California judicial performance:
Appearance of bias toward a particular class: Pensky sentenced fellow alumni and athlete Of Stanford university to an unusually lenient sentence of 6 months for a unanimously guilty verdict on three counts of sexual assault. Despite Mr Turner showing no remorse and despite being caught in the act.
Inappropriate comments on the bench: “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him (Brock Turner)“ in relation to why this convicted rapist would serve such a short sentence.
The Daily Beast said Persky “coddled” Turner; the petitioners said the sentence was “lenient.” They’re both wrong. The truth is that Brock Turner will spend more time in jail than 97 percent of rapists.
According to an analysis of Justice Department data by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), only three out of every 100 rapists will ever go to jail. Despite the recent attention paid to the prevalence of sexual assault, despite the overriding fear among many that the adjudication of sexual assault crimes will punish good young men far more than is necessary, it remains true that perpetrators of sexual violence are far less likely to go to jail than any other kind of criminal.
Turner’s sentence is maddening, and what’s worse is the reality that Turner wasn’t coddled at all. Persky wasn’t lenient. Turner will be punished more than the vast majority of rapists. And there is no victory to be claimed in this. The categories of winning and losing don’t apply here; the game is fixed. There are thousands of Aaron Perskys and there are thousands of Brock Turners and thousands of probation officers who see no damage done. There are thousands of men looking only for the categorical preservation of the good reputations of the right kind of men, who neither see nor hear a victim asking for something as simple as justice.
Image via Stanford University’s Department of Public Safety.