Stanford sex assault case spurs get-tough
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[September 01, 2016]
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - Former
Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner will be released on Friday
after serving three months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman
near a fraternity party, a sentence that has ignited fierce debate over
the way California defines and punishes rape.
Turner's sentence to months in county jail instead of years in state
prison stoked international outrage, leading California lawmakers to
call for mandatory prison time for sex assaults involving unconscious
victims, and expanding the state's definition of rape.
But the proposed new laws, now on the desk of Democratic Governor Jerry
Brown, come as Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to move the
criminal justice system away from mandatory sentencing laws and other
get-tough measures that have contributed to crowded prisons and the
over-incarceration of poor and minority defendants.
"When we broaden those criminal definitions, it can broaden the swath of
persons that can be criminalized," said Emily Austin, director of
advocacy for the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which
declined to take a position on the bills. "And how that works out in the
justice system can vary based on your race and class."
The Turner case has become the focal point of growing international
outrage over campus rape. Many advocates say laws in California and
elsewhere offer outdated definitions of rape that are too lenient on
perpetrators if they or their victims have been drinking.
Crafting a solution has proven thorny.
The criticism of Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky's
sentence in the Turner case has been fierce, generating more than a
million signatures on an online petition calling for his ouster and
prompting a recall campaign. Since the sentencing, the judge, who
declined to comment for this story, has recused himself from a sexual
assault case and asked to hear only civil cases.
LIMITING JUDICIAL DISCRETION
The recall campaign and legislative responses have come under fire from
many public defenders, who represent defendants unable to afford legal
fees, and some judges, who say they limit judges' discretion when
In the legislature, several lawmakers who support rolling back mandatory
sentencing sat out votes on the two bills. Brown, who has not said
whether he will sign them, is backing a ballot initiative to ease
Assembly member Cristina Garcia, whose bill expanding the definition of
rape is among those on Brown's desk, nonetheless cast a dissenting vote
on the mandatory sentencing bill.
"We should not perpetuate practices that put an undue burden on
minorities and economically disadvantaged communities like minimum
mandatory sentences," Garcia said.
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A combination booking photos shows former Stanford University
student Brock Turner (L) on January 18, 2015 at the time of arrest
and after Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail for the
sexual assault of an unconscious woman, in Santa Clara County
Sheriff's booking photo (R) released on June 7, 2016. Courtesy Santa
Clara County Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS
A backer of the Persky recall campaign, the feminist group
Ultraviolet, also opposed it.
The Turner case initially shot to prominence last year because the
defendant was a rising student athlete at Stanford. Turner, then 19,
was arrested after two students saw him outside of a fraternity
house on top of an unconscious woman.
He was charged with sexual assault instead of rape because although
he digitally penetrated the woman, he did not have intercourse with
her, and California law does not define that as rape.
A letter written by the victim, who remains anonymous, went viral
with a moving explanation of her ordeal.
In June, Persky sentenced Turner to six months in a county jail and
three years probation, sparking outrage that intensified after
prosecutors released a letter written by Turner's father calling the
assault "20 minutes of action."
Turner will be released on Friday after serving three months under
rules giving time off for factors including good behavior.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who started the campaign to
recall the judge, said while she generally opposes mandatory
sentencing, she believes Persky abused the discretion that the law
Changing the law, said Assembly member Evan Low, who co-authored the
bill mandating prison time for sexually assaulting an unconscious
victim, would keep that from happening again.
“Judge Persky's ruling was unjustifiable and morally wrong, however,
under current state law it was within his discretion," Low said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Bill Rigby)
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