California political leaders on Friday called on voters to recall Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky, hours after Brock Turner was released from jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in 2015.
“Today, Brock Turner is a free man,” said U.S. Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez, standing across from the Santa Clara County jail with more than a dozen lawmakers, advocates and local leaders. “And yet women who have been sexually assaulted are still prisoners of fear.”
Persky first spurred international outrage in June when he sentenced the former Stanford swimmer to six months in jail and three years of probation. The judge since has been moved to civil court at his own request and no longer handles criminal cases. For a growing number of critics who wish to oust him from the bench, that is not enough.
Protesters on Friday marched around the courthouse carrying colorful, handmade signs and chanting, “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Judge Persky has got to go.” What began as a grass-roots effort against sexual assault and privilege has evolved into a focused campaign to recall the jurist, with a team of veteran political consultants and supporters at all levels of government.
State and national leaders on Friday decried a culture of rape in society that places the blame of sexual violence on survivors. Those gathered said judges like Persky, who show a bias in favor of offenders with wealth and status over sex crimes survivors, feed into a criminal justice system that often fails victims.
Kamilah Willingham, who reported that she was sexually assaulted while a student at Harvard Law School, called Persky part of the problem. “Because even if the police believe you, even if the prosecutors believe you, even if against all odds the jurors believe you, at the end of the day, that can all be undermined,” she said.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell, a former Oakland prosecutor, said decisions like Persky’s damage the promise that prosecutors make to victims — that if they take their offenders to trial, their assailants will be held accountable.
“He takes away from our community the justice it deserves,” Swalwell said. “He takes away from the public the protection that they need. And he takes away from Emily Doe the closure that the prosecutor promised to her.”
It is rare for top political leaders to so deeply involve themselves in a local issue.
Turner was convicted in March of 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.
At his sentencing, Turner faced up to 14 years in prison for the January 2015 sexual assault, which was witnessed by two passersby who held him down until authorities arrived. Prosecutors sought a six-year prison term.
But Persky ultimately opted for the lighter sentence, saying a lengthier penalty would have a “severe impact” on Turner. A letter to Turner from the woman he attacked went viral after she read it aloud in court, helping fuel a firestorm of criticism over the crime and the sentence.
Public outrage over the Turner case has extended to the Capitol, where lawmakers have passed legislation to expand the definition of rape and to increase punishment for sex offenders.
State Senate leader Kevin de León on Friday pointed to another case, that of Raul Ramirez, a 32-year-old immigrant from El Salvador who de León said admitted to sexually assaulting his roommate.
Unlike Turner, Ramirez apologized and cried with remorse, de León said. But Persky showed no leniency, sentencing him to three years in state prison.
“Judge Persky is biased,” he said. “Judge Persky has put the interest of convicted abusers ahead of interests for victims of sexual assault. To me, it shows he is fundamentally unfit to serve on the bench.”