Judge in Stanford rape case switches to civil cases, calling criticism a distraction

Judge Aaron Persky has faced strong criticism since sentencing Stanford swimmer and convicted rapist Brock Turner to only six months in prison. But outcry over the sentence may change legal attitudes towards rape for good, experts say. 

Jason Doiy/The Recorder via AP/File
This 2011 photo shows Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, who drew criticism for sentencing Brock Turner to only six months in jail after Turner was convicted of three felony sexual assault charges.

Beleaguered by public criticism after his controversial sentencing of former Stanford University student-athlete Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexual assault, Judge Aaron Persky has chosen to return to hearing only civil cases.

The "Stanford rape case," as it became known, made national news after an open letter from the victim went viral, prompting broad scrutiny of the legal and political handling of rape cases. Experts say that the public outcry against Judge Persky's sentence could shape rape cases for years to come.

"I think we have a different political environment now, a changed political environment around sexual assault,” says Stanford Law School professor Michele Dauber, who led an effort to recall Judge Persky, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

"Things that were acceptable are no longer going to be acceptable," she says. "Treating sexual assault like a misdemeanor, which isn’t common but it does happen, is completely unacceptable going forward. Women won’t accept that anymore."

Persky believes that being reassigned to a civil division "will aid the public and the court by reducing the distractions that threaten to interfere with his ability to effectively discharge the duties of his current criminal assignment," Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Risë Jones Pichon said in a Thursday statement, according to The Los Angeles Times. His reassignment will take effect on September 6. 

Mr. Turner was charged with five felonies, later reduced to three, after two graduate students caught him assaulting an unconscious woman in 2015. Prosecutors asked Persky to sentence Turner to six years in prison.

Instead, Persky handed down a six month jail sentence, citing the defendant's age and lack of a record, as well as the overwhelmingly negative effects a stricter sentence could have on his life. The jail time will be followed by three years of probation, and Turner will also be required to register as a sex offender. 

In her widely circulated victim impact statement, the woman known only as "Emily Doe" called the six-month sentence "a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of the assaults." Her criticism has echoed nationally as individuals continue to scrutinize Persky’s judicial decisions.

"Certainly the victim's letter did a lot to galvanize and move forward the conversation about the seriousness of these crimes," says Dr. Daubner. "Her letter has turned out to be a really pivotal moment for a lot of women all over the world, particularly the younger women for whom the experience of college is still very fresh."

David Lisak, a clinical psychologist and expert on sexual assault, tells the Monitor that while it is too soon to say whether or not a definite shift is occurring in the way the legal system approaches rape cases and sentencing, the greater public attention to such cases has certainly increased scrutiny on the legal process.

According to Dr. Lisak, the sensitivity of rape and sexual assault cases makes the perceived integrity of the legal system ever more important.

"Judges do have to be aware of and concerned about perceptions," Lisnak says. "If there's a perception that a judge may be biased in some way [or] that the system is imbalanced, then that alone is a problem."

Earlier this week, Persky decided to recuse himself from deciding whether to reduce a child pornography conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor, saying that the months of criticism could hurt perceptions of his impartiality. 

"While on vacation earlier this month, my family and I were exposed to publicity surrounding this case," Persky wrote in a ruling announcing his recusal, according to The LA Times. "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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