When judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner in 2016, his perceived leniency drew international ire. Now, the woman leading the campaign to have him recalled is receiving rape threats in the mail. Wherever you stand on this issue, something in the culture is broken.
In 2016 Brock Turner, a student and swimmer at Stanford, was convicted on three counts of sexual assault against a young woman. For these crimes, he was sentenced to six months in prison with three year’s probation. For many, this was the patriarchy in action, giving leniency to a promising young athlete in the wake of serious crimes.
Judge Aaron Persky has gone on record saying, “California law requires every judge to consider rehabilitation and probation for first-time offenders. It’s not always popular, but it’s the law, and I took an oath to follow it without regard to public opinion or any personal opinions I might have as a former prosecutor.” For Michele Dauber, a professor of law at Stanford, that justification didn’t wash. She leads a campaign which saw 94,000 petitioners demand Persky’s recall vote be on the ballot in June of this year.
In California, judges are appointed by the governor and then subject to review by election every six years - the recall vote would simply be moving up Persky’s appearance on the ballot.
However, the recallers have not been without their detractors, most of whom complain that the recall sets a dangerous precedent that will have judges thinking about elections rather than fairness when they dole out sentencing.
Erwin Chereminsky, Dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, has been a vocal critic of Dauber and the recall campaign. “The presumption up until now has been if you disagree with a judge's ruling, you appeal it," he said. "Now we are sending a message: If your sentence is too light, you face a recall."
To me (who followed the case closely in 2016 but will also admit to being a legal neophyte), this outrage reads as nonsense.
If a judge is mandated to stand for re-election, it stands to reason that there should be democratic processes in place for their removal if they fail according to the standards of their electors. Ultimately California judges are accountable to the communities they serve, and those who think judges are not already considering re-election with every decision they make are kidding themselves.
Such is the nature of a judiciary which is elected. Like their counterparts in the House and Senate, they are always on campaign, whether active or not, because the stability of their employment comes from reflecting the social mores of their communities. To my understanding, this is one of the ways in which American law begins to shift as society changes.
Dauber and her affiliates, of which there are staggeringly many, have decided to apply pressure on a judge whose rulings have not met an acceptable standard of punishment for sex criminals. Turner’s sentencing did not happen in a vacuum. In one instance, Persky delayed sentencing a man who was convicted of domestic assault for one year so he could play football at the University of Hawaii. He then offered to downgrade the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor. There are other similar rulings.
For those who argue that these young men do not deserve to have their entire lives altered for a momentary lapse in judgment, particularly when they show such athletic promise, well – you are the problem. We are considering the sentencing of adult men who commit crimes against women.
When we prosecute murder or drug charges, we seldom consider the potential of the offender. Even more seldom do we consider whether they were aware of the illegality of their behavior, or whether a first offense in these categories is worth throwing someone’s entire life off course.
The problem with Persky’s rulings is not that he showed leniency, it’s that he showed it to people who mistreat women but are fast or can throw a ball. He has blended elements into his sentencing that ought not be considered. He did this because there is a part of him, consciously or unconsciously, that believes crimes against women are categorically different than other offenses. He believes the careers of the defendants should factor in.
And he is clearly not the only one who thinks so, otherwise Dauber would not have received an envelope containing white powder and the message, “Since you are going to disrobe Persky, I am going to treat you like ‘Emily Doe.’ Let’s see what kind of sentencing I get for being a rich white male.” Stanford went on lockdown for several hours before the powder was deemed harmless.
Which brings me to the broken element in society that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. How have we arrived at a place where the white male ego is so fragile that it feels the need to persecute a movement using the features of government as they were intended? This low-rent terrorism represents a disease which now permeates dialogue in America - that for every man who faces consequences, there is another who is willing to hurt people on his behalf.