Why the Stanford Judge Gave Brock Turner Six Months

The California judge said the sexual-assault victim suffered “physical and devastating emotional injury,” but a prison sentence for her offender was not appropriate.

Stephen Lam / Reuters

Earlier this month, the public learned about a sexual-assault case in California through the words of the people involved. In statements made in court that were widely published online, they heard from the victim, a 23-year-old woman whose name has not been released, who has no memory of the assault and described in excruciating detail how its aftermath robbed her of “my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice.” They heard from the offender, Brock Turner, a Stanford University freshman at the time, who said the woman had consented to his sexual advances and blamed “the party culture and risk-taking behavior” of college for his actions. They heard from Turner’s father, who pleaded with the judge for leniency after his 20-year-old son was convicted in March, referring to the crimes as “20 minutes of action.”

And now, they can hear from the judge in the case, Aaron Persky of the Santa Clara Superior Court, who determined the sentence for Turner that would transform a local case into a point of national debate about sexual assault, male and class privilege, and the criminal justice system. Although Turner was convicted by a unanimous jury, Persky decided his punishment: six months in county jail and three years of probation—far less than the six years prosecutors had asked for, in line with the two-year minimum guideline for each of the three felony counts.

The Guardian on Tuesday published a full transcript (read it here) from Turner’s sentencing hearing earlier this month, in which Persky explains his reasoning for the sentence. The main point? Persky believed Turner’s side of the story, that the victim gave Turner consent to have sexual contact with her.

“I mean, I take him at his word that, subjectively, that’s his version of events," Persky said. “The jury, obviously, found it not to be the sequence of events.”

Persky said determining the sentence was a “difficult decision.” He said he considered denying Turner probation because of the “physical and devastating emotional injury” of the victim.

Persky took into consideration, among other factors, that Turner was remorseful, was not previously convicted of any crimes, was young, was not armed during the crime, that he would comply with the terms of probation, and he would not be a danger to others if not imprisoned. He said the role alcohol played in the assault is “not an excuse” but “is a factor that, when trying to assess moral culpability in this situation, is mitigating.” He said a prison sentence would have “a severe impact” and “adverse collateral consequences” on Turner.

Turner was convicted in March on three felony counts for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in January 2015 outside of a Stanford fraternity party where they had been drinking heavily. Two graduate students were biking on campus when they spotted Turner on top of the victim, who did not appear to be moving. Turner ran when the men approached, and one of them chased him and tackled him to the ground while police was called.

Turner’s sentence stunned many who read the victim’s harrowing account. While Turner is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, a sentence of six months—which could be reduced to three months for good behavior—seemed far too lenient for the crimes: 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.

Sexual-assault advocates pointed to the Stanford case as a prime example for why so many women choose not to report sexual assaults to police or press charges against their rapists and testify against them. Others attributed the judge’s leniency to Turner’s appearance and background; a white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed swimmer with Olympic potential, Turner didn’t look like a rapist. There was much debate whether the crimes Turner committed amounted to rape with a capital R. While the legal definition of rape varies by state, in California it is defined as “an act of sexual intercourse, including sexual penetration, no matter how slight” under several circumstances, including “where a person is prevented from resisting by any intoxicating or anesthetic substance, or any controlled substance, and this condition was known, or reasonably should have been known by the accused.” The FBI goes even further, defining rape as the “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 crimes for which Turner was convicted are in line with these definitions.

The victim, in her 7,244 word-statement to the court during Turner’s sentencing hearing, said she was warned her inability to remember her assault would bolster Turner’s defense:

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

When I was told to be prepared in case we didn’t win, I said, I can’t prepare for that. He was guilty the minute I woke up. No one can talk me out of the hurt he caused me. Worst of all, I was warned, because he now knows you don’t remember, he is going to get to write the script. He can say whatever he wants and no one can contest it. I had no power, I had no voice, I was defenseless. My memory loss would be used against me. My testimony was weak, was incomplete, and I was made to believe that perhaps, I am not enough to win this. His attorney constantly reminded the jury, the only one we can believe is Brock, because she doesn’t remember.

For Persky, a Stanford alumnus, the fallout was swift. His office began receiving threatening phone calls after the victim’s letter was published online. An online petition to recall Persky, who is running unopposed for re-election in November, has collected 1.2 million signatures. A Stanford law professor and other members of the local legal community have organized an effort to remove him from the bench. A dozen prospective jurors have refused to serve in his courtroom. And this week, the Santa Clara District Attorney’s filed a successful motion to stop Persky from presiding over another sexual-assault case.