Vanderbilt rapist sentenced to 15 years, drawing contrast to Stanford sentence

Aggravated rape in Tennessee carries a minimum of 15 years in prison, but a California judge was granted more leeway in the Brock Turner case. 

Larry McCormack/The Tennessean via AP
Brandon Vandenburg, a former Vanderbilt football player, listens during his rape trial Saturday, June 18,, 2016. Mr. Vandenburg will serve at least 15 years in prison under Tennessee law.

An ex-Vanderbilt University football player will serve at least 15 years in prison after he was convicted by a jury Saturday of encouraging three teammates to rape an unconscious woman he was dating, and filming it in his dorm room.  

Brandon Vandenburg, 23, must be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison for aggravated rape under Tennessee law, as must his former teammate, Corey Batey, 22, who was found guilty in April of the same crime.

“I’m hoping this will send a message out. This is serious what happens, and has serious consequences,” said Tom Thurman, Nashville’s deputy district attorney, immediately after Mr. Vandenburg’s conviction. “I hope young people do pay attention to this, and see what choices they make with alcohol. Their actions can severely impact their lives, and in certain cases destroy their lives.”

Mr. Vandenburg and Mr. Batey’s convictions come amid criticism about how colleges handle sexual assaults, alcohol, and the conduct of student athletes. And as the Associated Press writes, the crime is “tragically similar” to that of ex-Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who was sentenced to six months in jail for the sexual assault of an unconscious woman outside a fraternity on the California campus.

"It does seem like an extreme disparity,” Dmitry Gorin, a Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor specializing in sex crimes, told the Associated Press. “But I would say this: With these sex crimes, the facts are very important, the details are very important, and the law punishes the conduct differently depending on what conduct can be proven.”

In the Vandenburg and Batey trials, a surveillance video showed several men carrying an unconscious woman into Vandenburg’s dorm room in June 2013. According to pictures and video deleted from Vandenburg’s phone, as well as confessions and trial testimony, Batey and two other ex-football players – Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie and Brandon E. Banks – assaulted the woman, while Vandenburg watched, the Tennessean reported. Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Banks have pleaded not guilty, and are awaiting trial.

After Batey, who is black, was convicted in April, Misee Harris, a blogger who writes about race issues, posted an image macro on Facebook of Batey side-by-side with Mr. Turner, the ex-Stanford swimmer. Superimposed under Batey’s picture was “rape of an unconscious woman, 15-25 years.” Under Turner’s picture it read “rape of an unconscious woman, 6 months.” The meme generated over 21,000 comments

“While I realize the differences in state jurisdiction and some details, the parallels are obvious. So is the discrepancy of the two verdicts,” wrote Ms. Harris. “No matter how much anyone tries to twist the facts, the truth remains: America's justice system in 2016 still prefers white males over any other group in society.”

Ms. Harris is referring to the fact that the Tennessee General Assembly sets the state’s sentencing rules, and leaves little discretion to its judges, according to the Tennessean. The minimum sentence for aggravated rape there is 15 years. The four former football players were charged with aggravated rape because the victim was unconscious and there was more than one assailant.

While California also has a minimum sentence for aggravated rape, based on the evidence the prosecution charged Turner with sexual assault instead of rape. The maximum sentence Turner could have served under the charges he was convicted of was 14 years.  

The judge, Aaron Persky, sentenced Turner to six months in jail, siding with the parole officer over the prosecution’s recommendation of a six-year jail sentence. Persky found Turner's age (20), his lack of criminal history, and his drunken state at the time of the incident warranted a shorter sentence, in addition to probation and sex offender registration. "A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him," said Mr. Persky. Turner will likely serve three-months of his six-month jail sentence.

With millions of signatures on a petition to recall Persky, Frank Daniels III, a columnist for the Tennessean, joined the criticism about the Turner case, especially in comparison to Batey and Vandenburg’s sentences. But Mr. Daniels also points out the responsibility colleges bear.

“We should be outraged by the difference in sentences, but we should be even more outraged by the inability of our college campuses and our society to address the out-of-control culture that we have fostered,” wrote Daniels.

Certain schools have started to respond. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Max Lewontin reported, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is expanding rules adopted last year to prohibit players with a history of sexual assault, stalking, or interpersonal violence from transferring to any of its 14 member universities.  

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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