When the Vice President of the United States is upset enough about a criminal case to personally write an open letter to the victim, you know it’s a big deal. Earlier this week, Joe Biden did just that. He composed a powerfully emotional letter to the victim of Brock Turner, the champion swimmer at Stanford University who was convicted of raping another student while she lay unconscious.
“I am filled with furious anger—both that this happened to you and that our culture is still so broken that you were ever put in the position of defending your own worth,” he wrote in a letter published on Buzzfeed. “It must have been wrenching—to relive what he did to you all over again,” Biden added. “But you did it anyway, in the hope that your strength might prevent this crime from happening to someone else. Your bravery is breathtaking.”
Why was Biden so angry, so outraged?
The Path So Far
On January 18, 2015, two graduate students found Turner raping a 23-year-old woman—she was half-naked, unconscious, outside a fraternity house around 1:00 a.m. They chased after him and held him down until police arrived. The victim later told authorities she had decided to accompany her younger sister to a party, but had initially planned to stay home. After the attack, she woke up at a hospital and learned the details of her assault from the press.
Turner, a freshman at the time, was arraigned at the Santa Clara County courthouse in Palo Alto, California, February 2, 2015. According to ABC News, he pleaded not guilty to five felony charges, including attempted rape, rape of an intoxicated person, rape of an unconscious person, sexual penetration of an intoxicated woman, and sexual penetration of an unconscious woman. He alleged that the two were hooking up at the party and he only fondled her. He was released on $150,000 bail.
According to The Stanford Daily, Turner attended his preliminary hearing in October 2015 with his defense attorney, Michael Armstrong. At that hearing he again pleaded not guilty, and two charges were dropped: Rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person. It was decided that he would stand trial for the three other felony counts.
Turner was found guilty of raping the victim on March 20, 2016. His sentencing was scheduled for June 2, where he faced a maximum of 14 years behind bars.
Here Comes the Outrage
At the sentencing, Judge Aaron Persky gave Turner just six months of jail and three years of probation for his actions (he must also register as a sex offender). But Turner is only expected to serve three months in jail—due to good behavior. The judge noted that he came to the decision because of Turner’s clean criminal record and that a harsher punishment would have left a “severe impact” on him. “I think he will not be a danger to others,” Judge Persky told CNN.
On June 3, various media outlets obtained the letter the victim read aloud in court to Turner. Powerful and detailed, it described how she felt after the assault, how hard it was to tell her family, and how the experience “has done irreversible damage” to her.
The woman took the time to read portions of Turner’s testimony and responded to each of them, too. “…you said, ‘I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life.’ A life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you, ‘I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives.’ You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. If you think I was spared, came out unscathed, that today I ride off into sunset, while you suffer the greatest blow, you are mistaken. Nobody wins. We have all been devastated; we have all been trying to find some meaning in all of this suffering. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, and enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today,” she wrote. “… to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe you.”
Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and friend of the victim, then released the letter Turner’s father, Dan, wrote to the judge ahead of his son’s sentencing, according to the Associated Press. The message has since been ridiculed as “tone deaf” by critics. “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” the father wrote. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
Additionally, the father claimed his son’s life was “deeply altered” by the incident. “Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him,” he added. “Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist.”
Does Turner’s father even remotely understand how much the victim of his son’s crime has been a lot more than just “deeply altered?”
The victim herself may have best summed up the outrage of such a shocking verdict: “If a first-time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be? The fact that Brock was an athlete at a private university should not be seen as an entitlement to leniency, but as an opportunity to send a message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class.”
Recall Petition, Court Trouble Now in Play
A Change.org petition has been launched to recall Judge Persky because of the light sentence he handed down to Turner. “Judge Persky failed to see that the fact that Brock Turner is a white, male star athlete at a prestigious university does not entitle him to leniency,” the page states. “He also failed to send the message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class, race, gender, or other factors.” As of Friday, June 10, the petition has already received more than 1,084,527 signatures.
Now potential jurors on upcoming cases are refusing to serve on cases in Persky’s court. “I can’t be here, I’m so upset,” one juror reportedly told Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky on Wednesday. Another simply stated, “I can’t believe what you did.” The East Bay Times said at least 10 prospective jurors declined to serve in an unrelated case. KPIX-TV said the number was double that, and the jurors cited the judge as a hardship. This could spell big trouble for the court system.
Finally, Some Real-world Consequences?
On Friday, Brock Turner received a lifetime ban from USA Swimming, the governing body for professional swimming across the nation. A Facebook group campaign endorsing Turner’s Olympic prospects was also disabled.
A spokesperson for the organization explained the decision in a statement to USA Today Sports: “Brock Turner’s membership with USA Swimming expired at the end of the calendar year 2014…He was not a member at the time of his crime or since then. USA Swimming doesn’t have any jurisdiction over non-members,” he said. “Brock Turner is not a member of USA Swimming and, should he apply, he would not be eligible for membership. …Had he been a member, he would be subject to the USA Swimming Code of Conduct. USA Swimming strictly prohibits and has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, with firm Code of Conduct policies in place, and severe penalties, including a permanent ban of membership, for those who violate our Code of Conduct.”
The “Real Question” Many are Now Asking
To put it simply: Would Brock Turner have gotten the same sentence from Judge Persky if he were a poor, black, non-athlete?
Brian Banks, a black former football star who spent five years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, said he was flabbergasted by the six-month sentence handed down to the former college swimmer.
Banks was a 16-year-old high school football star courted by big-time colleges in 2002, when another student at Long Beach Poly High accused him of rape—although his accuser admitted 10 years later she’d made up the sexual assault. By then, Banks had already spent five years in prison and missed out on the college football career he’d hoped would prepare him for the NFL.
The judge in Turner’s case expressed empathy for the former swimmer, who was found guilty by 12 jurors, but Banks said the judge in his case seemed completely indifferent about altering the course of his life.
“It was like he was ordering McDonald’s at a drive-thru window,” Banks told the New York Post‘s Gary Myers. “It was like he was ordering food and took off.”
“I would say it’s a case of privilege,” Banks explained. “It seems like the judge based his decision on lifestyle. He’s lived such a good life and has never experienced anything serious in his life that would prepare him for prison. He was sheltered so much he wouldn’t be able to survive prison. What about the kid who has nothing, he struggles to eat, struggles to get a fair education? What about the kid who has no choice who he is born to and has drug-addicted parents or a non-parent household? Where is the consideration for them when they commit a crime?”
Is it Really Black & White?
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst with the Sentencing Project, says that while sentencing is perhaps the least statistically noticeable place to find racial bias in the courts, due to mandatory minimums on certain crimes, “judges are more likely to see a white defendant as a candidate for rehabilitation than they are a defendant of color.”
She also adds that it’s perhaps time to think about our criminal justice system in entirely different terms. “When we think about equalizing outcomes, do we want to get everybody to the point where they’re being sentenced too severely, or do we want to think about the just sentence? Making sure that everyone gets the worst outcome is not going to necessarily address the problems we have with over-incarceration.”
Prachi Gupta, a writer for Cosmopolitan, recently wrote, “No one has a criminal record until they commit a crime, but that doesn’t mean the crime isn’t a crime. The rush to humanize Turner and grant him a lenient sentence is an example of a system that elevates the voices and experiences of white men, and dismisses violence against women. As a young, successful white male athlete, Turner benefits from a level of compassion and empathy rarely expressed for any other group of people in America, a benefit of the doubt that people of color and women rarely get. In fact, they are often subject to higher levels of scrutiny simply by virtue of not being white or male.”
A study conducted for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, based on data from 2005—after a Supreme Court decision gave judges more flexibility in sentencing—through 2012, shows that black defendants are still getting longer sentences than white ones for the same crimes. But it’s certainly not the first study to find that even when the criminal justice system as a whole is getting more lenient, that leniency varies depending on the race of the defendant. And it’s a big challenge for criminal justice reformers—who end up caught in a terrible double bind.
To actually calculate whether judges are using their discretion to favor white defendants more than black ones requires some serious statistical analysis. But other researchers who’ve done that analysis, just like the authors of the new study, have found that racial disparities have persisted.
Obviously, the issues surrounding race, privilege, education, and criminal history—when it comes to the court and sentencing system—won’t be easily solved anytime soon. The case of Brock Turner should serve as a wake-up call to America that such factors, whether we want to admit it or not, do in fact play a big role in a judge’s sentencing decisions.
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(Sources: CNN International; Buzzfeed; Us Magazine; ABC News; The Stanford Daily; CNN; The Atlantic; The East Bay Times, Huffington Post; Second Nexus; Raw Story; Broadly; Cosmopolitan; Sentencing Project; and New York Post.)