On Wednesday, a Palo Alto jury found ex-Stanford student Brock Turner guilty of sexual assault against a fellow student. Turner, now 20, was a member of the university swim team. And we know what that means: it’s time for someone to write a story about his “once-promising future.”
We didn’t have to wait long on this one: the Washington Post has stepped in to do that inevitable story, not two days after Turner was convicted on three felony charges: assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.
And the Post’s Michael E. Miller does get around to mentioning all that, after describing Turner as “baby-faced” and detailing both his high school swimming record and theoretical Olympic prospects, as well as employing the phrase “Suddenly he was accused of rape.”
That accusation happened after Peter Jonsson, another Stanford student bicycling through campus the night of January 18, 2015, suddenly found Turner on top of an unconscious, partially-clothed woman. Jonsson testified that when he shouted “What are you doing?” Turner tried to run away; Jonsson and another student subdued him until police arrived.
Turner testified the woman willingly left a party with him and consented to sexual activity. He said he only tried to run because Jonsson was trying to put him in a headlock and he got scared:
“I decided to run,” Turner said, but one of the men tackled him. “I started screaming for help.”
Turner said he recalled the man asking, “Do you think this is OK?”
“I had no idea what he was talking about,” Turner testified. “It just seemed like he hated me or something.”
Turner said the woman was awake and conscious the whole time, and when his lawyer asked him if he intended to rape her, he replied: “Absolutely not.”
The woman didn’t wake up until three hours after the two were discovered; she testified at trial that she had no memory of meeting Turner or agreeing to go anywhere with him. She awoke in the hospital with pine needles in her hair and dried blood on her hands and elbows, according to the San Jose Mercury News, with no idea how she’d gotten there. Her blood-alcohol alcohol level was three times the legal limit, while Turner’s was double.
The Post also quotes some guy on a local news broadcast by way of delicately raising the issue of consent—namely maybe Turner got it and the lady just didn’t remember?
But critics argued that the jury was harsh on Turner and treated an ambiguous and alcohol-fueled moment with black-and-white certainty.
“This was not a clear-cut case, and I hope the jury got it right,” commented one man on a local TV station’s coverage of the verdict. “Of course Turner made some terrible mistakes, but I will always wonder if consent happened or not.
“I also worry the ‘face of campus sexual assault’ was being prosecuted rather than the actual defendant,” he added. “The prosecutor was playing to the demands of Stanford female activists.”
And the story employs a now mandatory phrase: “once-promising,” employed to refer to high school or college athletes who get sidelined with sudden accusations of rape coming from who knows where. Search for that phrase and you’ll find a wealth of hand-wringing stories about athletes, employing language similar to Miller’s here:
With sentencing June 2 and an appeal possible, Turner’s once-promising future remains uncertain. But his extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy.
“Once-promising” isn’t new, of course: CNN infamously did it for the two teenagers convicted in the Steubenville rape case in 2013. But you don’t even have to be currently playing any sports to merit that sentence formulation: Owen Labrie got the “once-promising” treatment from Vanity Fair and Newsweek by virtue of being wealthy, white, and attending a good school. Daniel Holtzclaw, a serial rapist cop got it because he played football once upon a time. (Salon even dubbed the “once-promising” media formulation “the Daniel Holtzclaw effect.”)
Brock Turner, meanwhile, voluntarily left Stanford last year after the charges were brought. He remains free on bail until his scheduled sentencing on June 2, when he faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. He will also be required to permanently register as a sex offender.
Turner in court. Screenshot via ABC 7