Stanford rape sentence unusually light, legal experts say

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, shown in 2011, has been criticized for sentencing former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to only six months in jail in a sexual assault case.
(Jason Doiy / The Recorder via AP)

Outrage over six-month sentence handed to former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner last week following a sexual assault conviction has sparked an effort to recall Santa Clara County Superior Court judge Aaron Persky, but any effort to unseat the judge will be extremely difficult, according to experts.

Judges are rarely recalled from office in California. Most who do leave office are removed following an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance with a hearing on an issue of serious abuse, according to Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson.

“Judges almost never get recalled even when people are upset about a sentence,” Levenson said Tuesday.


Veteran sex crimes attorney Dmitry Gorin said recall attempts are rare and usually occur when a judge not only gives a lenient sentence but makes comments from the bench that indicate some abuse of discretion.

Persky is one of 25 judges who are running unopposed in Santa Clara County this election year. Because Persky and the others are running unopposed, their names won’t appear on Tuesday’s California primary election ballots. They probably won’t appear on the November general election ballot either.

That is unless they are challenged.

“Most people don’t realize how involved it really is,” said Anita Torres, spokeswoman for the Santa Clara County registrar of voters.

To oppose Persky, who was appointed by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, voters must turn in 600 signatures by Aug. 17 to include a write-in candidate in November.

But that’s not all.

An opposing candidate must also submit nomination paperwork by Oct. 25 to challenge Persky’s reelection bid, Torres said. Persky’s opposition must be a “qualified candidate.”

From there, voters must write in that candidate’s name instead of Persky’s.


However, voters do have a second -- and far more complicated — option: Recalling the jurist through a special election.

In order to do that, petitioners must gather 58,634 signatures to trigger a special county election that would be held sometime next year, Torres said.

No signatures have been submitted to the county’s registrar office so far, Torres said.

Online petitions are calling for Persky’s recall after he rejected a lengthy prison sentence for Turner.

Prosecutors asked for six years in prison, but Persky, a former prosecutor, imposed a six-month term in county jail.

The judge and probation officials noted the defendant’s youth and lack of a prior criminal history. According to a probation report released Monday, the county’s probation department recommended a “moderate” jail sentence because he had no criminal history and because his intoxication level – about 0.13 percent blood-alcohol concentration – reduced the seriousness of the crime.

Persky said that a stiffer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner.

Critics say the sentence was too lenient, arguing that yet another college athlete’s wrongdoings were treated lightly at the expense of a female sexual assault victim.

Gorin said the sentencing in this case is outside the norm in his decades-long experience as both a sex crimes prosecutor in L.A. County and as a defense attorney.

“It is very unusual to have probation in a forcible rape case,” Gorin said. “His background and no record was a major factor. I cannot think of a similar local case where a defendant convicted by a jury of such a violent crime avoided prison.”

Turner faced up 14 years in prison after his conviction in March on three felony counts of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated person, sexually penetration of an intoxicated person with a foreign object and sexually penetration of an unconscious person with a foreign object.

“Those convictions alone should send him to prison,” said Steve Cooley, Los Angeles former district attorney. “It’s an extraordinary sentence. He’ll spend just 90 days in the county jail after being convicted on three sexual assault charges.”

The standard sentence for those crimes is six years, he said.

“That is what I’d expect him to receive,” Cooley said.

Prosecutors, he said, have the right to appeal the sentencing decision, but reversal by an appeals court on the grounds of abuse of discretion is rare.

Anger over Turner’s sentencing escalated after Stanford University School of Law professor Michele Dauber released excerpts online of a letter Turner’s father penned to the court. Dauber has launched a campaign to oust Persky from the bench, saying “we need women judges who understand rape is not ‘a mistake’ and the law applies to athletes.”

Dan A. Turner wrote that his son’s and family’s lives had been completely altered because of the verdict. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life,” he wrote.

Turner later sought to clarify his comments in a statement issued to Huffington Post, saying his words were misinterpreted.

In an emotional 12-page statement published online, the rape victim detailed her psychological trauma. Discord spread beyond California when her statement went viral.

She called the probation officer’s recommendation of a year or less in county jail “a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, and of the consequences of the pain I have been forced to endure.”

Santa Clara County Dist. Atty. Jeff Rosen criticized the sentence, but said he does not believe Persky should be unseated.

“The punishment does not fit the crime,” he said in a statement after the sentencing. “The sentence does not factor in the true seriousness of this sexual assault, or the victim’s ongoing trauma. Campus rape is no different than off-campus rape. Rape is rape.”

Gorin said Orange County’s bench has, in recent years, been the place where activists have targeted judges for their sentencing decisions.

An effort to recall Orange County Superior Court Judge M. Marc Kelly for sentencing a child molester to 10 years instead of 25 years to life failed earlier this year. Petitioners gathered more 90,000 signatures but needed more than 100,000 across the county to get the recall on the ballot. Kelly said he believed the minimum 25-year sentence required under Jessica’s Law, adopted by voters in 2006, would be unconstitutional in this case.

Nancy Wieben Stock, a now-retired Orange County judge, weathered an unsuccessful recall effort in the 1990s after she awarded O.J. Simpson custody of his two children after he was acquitted of killing his wife and the children’s mother, Nicole Brown Simpson.

Staff writer Brittny Mejia contributed to this report.


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