The victim of a sexual assault by a former Stanford University swimmer said on Monday she was “overwhelmed and speechless” at the deluge of support for her as the judge who gave her attacker a light sentence faced a recall campaign.
Brock Allen Turner, 20, who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus, was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation – a punishment that is significantly less severe than the minimum prison time of two years prescribed by state law for his felony offenses.
The light sentencing, along with comments from Turner’s father, who said his son is paying a “steep price” for “20 minutes of action”, have sparked global consternation.
In a brief phone interview with the Guardian on Monday, the victim, whoseemotional testimony has since gone viral, said the positive responses to her statement have been moving. “I’m worried that my heart is going to grow too big for my chest,” she said. “I’ve just been overwhelmed and speechless.”
The Guardian can also reveal that the judge who gave the former Stanford athlete the light sentence will now face a recall campaign led by a law professor at the elite university who argues the jurist took extraordinary measures to allow the student to avoid prison.
Further scrutiny on the judge’s remarks at sentencing appear to suggest he concluded the defendant had “less moral culpability” because he was drunk, and that a light sentence would be an “antidote” to the anxiety he had suffered from intense media attention on the case.
Michele Landis Dauber, a Stanford law professor who has been outspoken about sexual assault policies on campus, said she is launching the recall campaign against Aaron Persky, Santa Clara County superior court judge.
Persky, a Stanford alumnus, was captain of the lacrosse team when he was an undergraduate.
“He has made women at Stanford and across California less safe,” said Dauber, who attended the sentencing hearing and is also a family friend of the 23-year-old victim. “The judge bent over backwards in order to make an exception … and the message to women and students is ‘you’re on your own,’ and the message to potential perpetrators is, ‘I’ve got your back.’”
Turner, who is from Dayton, Ohio, was arrested on the Palo Alto campus on 18 January 2015 after two graduate students found him lying on top of the unconscious victim behind a dumpster outside of a fraternity party.
The woman, who was not a Stanford student, was partially clothed, had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit, and did not remember the assault when she awoke hours later.
The witnesses, who intervened and held Turner until police arrived, said they saw him “thrusting” on top of the motionless woman, and a jury ultimately convicted him of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman and sexually penetrating an intoxicated and unconscious person with a foreign object.
The case attracted interest across the country, in part because campus sexual assaults rarely lead to criminal prosecutions and convictions. It comes at a time when advocates have increasingly spoken out about the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment on US college campuses – including a string of sexual assault cases at nearby University of California, Berkeley.
Turner could have faced a maximum of 14 years in state prison, and in order to allow the defendant to avoid prison time altogether, the judge had to determine that this was an “unusual case where the interests of justice would best be served” by a lenient sentence.
After the victim delivered a detailed account about how the assault and ensuing trial traumatized her and her family, the judge issued the light county jail punishment and justified making an exception with a speech that onlookers said was unusually sympathetic to the defendant.
“Obviously, the prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky said in court. “The defendant is youthful and has no significant record of prior criminal offenses.”
The judge also implied that because the swimmer was intoxicated at the time of the attack, he should be treated differently than a sober defendant.
“There is less moral culpability attached to the defendant who is … intoxicated,” the judge said.
Persky also noted that news coverage of the case had significantly impacted Turner, saying: “The media attention that has been given to this case has in a way sort of poisoned the lives of the people that have been affected. … The question I’ve asked myself is … ‘Is state prison for this defendant an antidote to that poison?’”
In her 12-page victim impact statement, that has spread onsocial media, the woman noted that Turner has only admitted to being drunk that night, but has not acknowledged that he assaulted her and has continued to argue that the encounter was consensual.
The judge seemed to show some sympathy to Turner’s perspective. “I take him at his word that subjectively that’s his version of his events. … I’m not convinced that his lack of complete acquiescence to the verdict should count against him,” he said.
Dauber said she was further shocked to see Persky minimize the significance of the guilty verdicts, which came from a jury of eight men and four women. The judge said at sentencing: “A trial is a search for the truth. It’s an imperfect process.”
Persky also appeared to rely heavily on letters that Turner’s friends and family sent and read an excerpt from a former classmate who told the judge she couldn’t believe the assault allegations.
“To me that just rings true,” the judge said. “It sort of corroborates the evidence of his character up until the night of this incident, which has been positive.”
The letter in question, however, includes a lengthy rant that places blame on the woman for being attacked: “I’m sure she and Brock had been flirting at this party and decided to leave together … I don’t think it’s fair to base the fate of the next ten + years of his life on the decision of a girl who doesn’t remember anything but the amount she drank. … Where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.”
Persky repeatedly emphasized the effect the case has had on Turner, at one point saying: “The character letters that have been submitted do show a huge collateral consequence for Mr Turner.”
Turner, who withdrew from Stanford, will likely only spend three months in jail.
Dauber also noted that Persky made no mention of a letter signed by more than 250 Stanford students urging him to sentence Turner to at least the minimum years outlined in state law.
“A light sentence, such as probation or a few months in jail, would send the incorrect message that this was not a serious crime. This would undermine the trust in the legal system at large, diminish reporting, and possibly make the Stanford community a more dangerous place for all,” the letter said.
In her letter to the judge, Dauber wrote that Stanford’s surveys have found that 43% of female undergraduates have experienced sexual assault or misconduct, and that more than two-thirds of them said perpetrators took advantage of intoxicated victims. But only 2.7% of students who experienced assault or nonconsensual sexual contact reported it to the university.
Turner’s sentencing only does further damage, Dauber added, noting that she has observed nonviolent drug offenders receive much harsher treatment by judges.
“Aaron Persky is telling these women don’t bother calling police. Even if you get through a trial and even if you manage to get a conviction, I will not impose a serious sanction,” Dauber said.
Dauber said she would be launching a formal campaign this week to recall the judge from office, and a change.org petition calling for him to be removed has already garnered more than 45,000 signatures.