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Judge in Stanford rape case removes himself from another sex crimes proceeding

Aaron Persky
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky drew criticism for sentencing former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to only six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
(AP)

A Santa Clara County judge who faced widespread criticism after sentencing former Stanford student Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexual assault has removed himself from another sex-crimes case, court documents show. 

Judge Aaron Persky — who is facing a recall effort by those who say Turner’s punishment is too light — was set to decide this week whether to reduce the conviction of a plumber for possession of child pornography from a felony to a misdemeanor, the Mercury News reported. It would have been his first key decision in a sex crime case since he sentenced Turner in June.

Persky announced his recusal in the case involving plumber Robert Chain on Thursday and issued a brief written ruling saying the public attention in the Turner case threatened the perception of his impartiality. 

“While on vacation earlier this month, my family and I were exposed to publicity surrounding this case,” the ruling said. “This publicity has resulted in a personal family situation such that ‘a person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial.’ ”

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Assistant Dist. Atty. Terry Harman, one of the prosecutors on Chain’s case, said in a statement to The Times that it is “a judge’s responsibility to recuse him or herself if there are issues of impartiality.”

“We’re focused on the prosecution of the defendant in this matter,” Harman said. “We’re confident that the case will be handled by the bench fairly.”

Persky indicated he might be open to reducing the plumber’s felony conviction to a misdemeanor when he sentenced Chain to four days in county jail last year, according to the Mercury News. If the reduction were granted, it would have come a year earlier than a probation officer recommended.

Chain had 188 child pornography photos on his Samsung tablet, depicting girls ages 5 to 12, and at least one image of an infant, the Mercury News reported.

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Persky seemed impressed by Chain’s efforts to change his life, the newspaper said. Chain had stayed sober, went to therapy, held down a job and completed a sex offender management program.

Critics say it is an example of Persky’s leniency toward sex offenders. Nearly 1.3 million people have signed an online petition calling for the ouster of Persky, who is a Stanford alumnus

In March, a jury convicted Turner on three felony counts: assault with the intent to commit rape of an unconscious person, sexual penetration of an unconscious person and sexual penetration of an intoxicated person.

Turner attacked an unconscious woman behind a garbage bin on the Stanford University campus in January 2015

He was facing a maximum of 14 years in prison; prosecutors asked Persky to sentence him to a six-year term. 

Instead, Persky sentenced Turner to six months in county jail and three years of probation. He is likely to serve only half of that sentence because of California’s felony sentencing realignment.

The judge said a harsher penalty would have a “severe impact” on 20-year-old Turner.

In court, the unidentified victim read a 12-page, single-spaced letter that went viral after she gave it to the media. She said she was re-victimized during the trial by Turner’s claim that she had consented. 

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“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,” she wrote. “And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me.”

The woman called Turner’s sentence “a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of the assaults.”

Despite criticism of the sentence, any effort to unseat Persky, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, will be extremely difficult, legal experts said. 

In an unusual step, Santa Clara County prosecutors blocked Persky from hearing another sex crimes case two weeks after he sentenced Turner. Prosecutors at the time said they “lack confidence” in the judge’s ability to preside over the case.

In that case, a male nurse was accused of sexually assaulting an anesthetized female patient.

California court procedures allow prosecutors or defense lawyers to file a motion to remove a judge from a case and have it reassigned to another judge. 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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Times staff writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

11:55 a.m. This article was updated with a quote from Terry Harman and information about a case Harman was blocked from presiding over. 

This article was originally published at 8:20 a.m.


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