After hearing graphic and emotional testimony for three weeks and then deliberating for two days in March, a 12-person jury of eight men and four women unanimously agreed that former 19-year old Stanford University freshman Brock Turner was guilty of three sexual assault felonies committed on campus against an unconscious 22-year old Gunn High School alumna.
The verdict gave some solace to the victim and was heralded by prosecutors as a powerful message that sexual assault on college campuses is not excused by alcohol and such cases can and will be vigorously and successfully prosecuted.
Sexual-assault cases and convictions are exceedingly difficult because there are rarely witnesses, and victims often choose not to be re-traumatized in a trial that, as happened in this case, includes aggressive defense questioning on past sexual, drug and alcohol behavior of the victim.
But in this unusual case, the assault was interrupted by two Stanford graduate students who were bicycling across campus at 1 a.m. and saw Turner on top of the partially naked unconscious victim on the ground next to a Dumpster. They yelled at Turner to stop, then tackled and detained him as he tried to run away.
The actions and testimony of these two student witnesses, as well as police and paramedic responders, gave jurors the evidence they needed to convict the recruited All-American swimmer, rejecting his testimony that the victim was awake and had given her consent. As important, the jury rejected the attempt by the defense to suggest that Turner's and the victim's intoxication mitigated his actions or criminal intent.
But last week, to the horror of the victim, her family and prosecutors, and now millions across the nation, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky used his sentencing powers to impose his own view of the case, overrule statutory sentencing guidelines and all but undo the work of the jury.
Citing Turner's lack of a prior criminal record, his upstanding family, his success as a competitive swimmer and his character, Persky sentenced Turner to just six months in county jail, which means he will be released in three months under a practice that gives one day of credit for every day served.
The light sentence and the victim's vivid and wrenching 12-page pre-sentencing statement have propelled the case, the issue of campus sexual assault and Persky's actions to a national stage, bringing intense criticism and organizing efforts to remove Persky from office, either through recall or defeating him using a write-in campaign in his uncontested bid for re-election this November.
More than a million people have signed online petitions supporting the victim and condemning the sentence since the victim's statement and judge's ruling went viral last Friday.
Persky, who himself graduated from Stanford in 1984 and was captain of the lacrosse team, made clear in announcing the sentence that he was influenced by what he found was Turner's "genuine feeling of remorse," the impairment of Turner's judgment caused by being intoxicated, the many letters of support from friends and teachers in Turner's Ohio hometown and his lack of prior criminal behavior.
Persky said he didn't believe Turner would be a danger to others nor that prison would be an "antidote" to the "poison" that the case has brought to all involved, due in significant part to the media attention.
Persky's conclusions, which followed a probation report that failed to consider evidence that Turner had previously engaged in drinking and drug use that he had denied earlier in court, sadly point to the powerful impact of privilege in our judicial system. It is not hard to imagine how differently an African American 19-year old East Palo Alto youth attending community college and committing the exact same acts as Turner would have been treated by the court system.
While Judge Persky is regarded as fair and thoughtful in county legal circles and should not be vilified for his bad judgment in this case, he is accountable to the voters for betraying the values of our community. We support efforts to remove him from office. He wrongly showed greater mercy for Turner than for the victim of the serious felonies the jury found Turner committed, and in doing so sent a terrible message about the legal consequences of sexual assault committed by a privileged young person attending an elite school, even when caught in the act.
And Stanford University, which has stubbornly declined to seize on this case as a teaching opportunity, badly needs to pivot from talking points on its "national leadership" on the prevention of sexual assault to an examination of why its training failed to prevent this 19-old freshman from Ohio from prowling for a vulnerable victim at a frat party last Jan. 18. A good start would be to make the victim's personal statement mandatory reading for all freshmen and asking parents to read and discuss it with their sons and daughters.
If there is any good news of the last week, it is that people across the country are rallying to support the victim and bringing about a needed national discussion over this miscarriage of justice and the problem of campus sexual assault.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of the Brock Turner case. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.