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Judicial panel clears California judge who gave lenient sentence in Stanford sexual assault

A Santa Clara County judge who drew heated criticism for his decision to sentence former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman has been cleared of misconduct by the California Commission on Judicial Performance. 

In a 12-page report released Monday, the commission wrote that Judge Aaron Persky’s sentencing was within the “parameters set by law and was therefore within the judge’s discretion.” The commission, an independent state agency that is responsible for investigating claims of misconduct, said it found no evidence of bias in Persky’s conduct and announced that it had closed its investigation.

“The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged in judicial misconduct warranting discipline,” the panel said.

That assessment did little to quell the furor over Persky’s decision however as his fiercest critics vowed Monday to continue their campaign to have the judge removed from the bench in a recall election.

“We believe that the record is completely clear that Judge Persky has a long record of failing to take violence against women seriously, and we will demonstrate when we launch the campaign early next year,” said Michelle Dauber, a Stanford law professor and friend of the victim who has spearheaded the campaign. “We believe that voters support the recall and will replace Judge Persky.”

Outrage over the Turner sentencing erupted in June, when the victim’s anguished impact statement was published online and shared via social media. 

The commission, which consists of six public members, two lawyers, and three judicial officers, had received “thousands of complaints and petitions” charging Persky with gender, race and economic bias. Critics also alleged that a nonwhite, underprivileged defendant would have received a harsher sentence and that Persky should have been disqualified from the case because he graduated from Stanford and played lacrosse there.

Turner was facing a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for sexually assaulting “Emily Doe” behind a dumpster, after a fraternity party. At the time, prosecutors asked Persky to sentence him to six years in prison. Persky sentenced the then-20-year-old Turner to six months in county jail and three years’ probation. Because of California’s felony sentencing realignment, Turner served only half of the sentence.

In making his decision, Persky looked at both Turner and the victim’s account of the assault, the commission said. His sentencing, according to the judicial panel, was also consistent with a probation officer’s recommendation.

Turner’s chief probation officer, Monica Lassettre, recommended a sentence of county jail, three years of probation and sex offender treatment, according to her probation report.

The commission also found that Persky’s ties to Stanford were “insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification.”

“Since finishing his studies more than three decades ago, the judge’s contacts with Stanford University have been minimal,” the commission wrote.

“We will continue to proceed with the recall election as it is important for Santa Clara County voters to decide whether Judge Persky should remain on the bench,” Dauber said in a prepared statement. “This report simply highlights what we have been saying from the beginning, which is that a petition for judicial discipline was not the correct venue to address these concerns, and the recall is the only realistic way to remove Judge Persky from office.”

The commission also reviewed four other cases handled by Persky, and found no evidence of bias. In those cases, his sentencings were usually part of negotiated plea agreements between prosecutors and defense attorneys, consistent with recommendations in the probation reports or both, according to the judicial panel.

The commission’s assessment did not sit well with Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the women’s rights advocacy group UltraViolet. The report was “an insult to survivors of sexual assault everywhere,” she said in a prepared statement.

“The epidemic of rape and sexual violence against women is a national problem, where our so-called justice system excuses rapists and normalizes sexual violence too often,” she said. “Today’s decision from the California Commission on Judicial Performance, like Judge Persky’s decision to prioritize the well-being of convicted rapist Brock Turner, is yet another example of our national rape culture epidemic at work.”

Following Persky’s controversial ruling, lawmakers passed legislation in California this year that expanded the definition of rape and increased penalties for offenders who assault unconscious victims.

On Monday, the prosecutor in the Turner case acknowledged that although the Turner sentence was “extremely disappointing,” Persky had the lawful discretion to give it.

That would not be the case with the new law however.

“Inspired by Emily Doe and helped by your local legislators, we changed the law so that the next Brock Turner will not spend a semester in jail,” Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen said in a prepared statement on Monday. “The next Brock Turner will go to prison.”

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow @VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

4 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.

This story was first published at 11 a.m. 

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