Sen. Claire McCaskill said the judge in the Standford rape case “made a mistake.”
The judge in a high-profile sexual assault case that led to the conviction of a former Stanford University athlete “made a mistake in the sentencing,” said Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, a vocal advocate for federal legislation targeting sexual assault on college campuses.
Her partner in pushing that legislation, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, “doesn’t think justice was served in this case and she thinks that such a short sentence sends the wrong message,” her spokesman Marc Brumer told POLITICO.
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A jury convicted Brock Turner on three felony counts in connection to an attack that occurred in January 2015. Two Stanford graduate students biking by a campus fraternity party saw Turner by a dumpster and on top of a woman, who was unconscious on the ground, and stopped him when he tried to run. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced the 20-year-old to six months in jail.
In deciding the sentence, Persky said that he had considered Turner’s age and the fact that he had no prior crimes on his record. Turner must also serve probation and register as a sex offender. “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” Persky said. “I think he will not be a danger to others.” Turner is appealing his conviction.
McCaskill said there were “a lot of reasons to believe” that the case’s outcome would have been different if Turner had a different — less privileged — background.
“Justice is supposed to be blind, but in this case I think it was peeking,” McCaskill said. She also disagreed with the judge’s conclusion that Turner wasn’t dangerous.
“I can’t imagine a more dangerous predator than someone who would take advantage of someone in that situation,” she said.
The sentencing decision prompted outrage from individuals and advocacy organizations that say the judge was too soft on Turner. Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber, a family friend of the victim, is spearheading a campaign to recall Persky. Meanwhile, an online petition calling for the removal of Persky as a judge has collected over 1 million signatures. But Persky will probably hold onto his job, experts say.
A statement the 23-year-old victim made in court went viral, accumulating over 14 million views, after she shared it with BuzzFeed News. “Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment,” she said. “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.” CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield read the entire letter, about 7,000 words, on the air.
When she commented on the sentencing, she said: “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.”
The outrage intensified when Dauber tweeted part of a letter that Turner’s father had written to the judge. “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” Dan Turner wrote. “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” He later tried to clarify what he wrote, saying “20 minutes of action” was an “unfortunate choice of words.”
In a statement to the judge, obtained by the Guardian, Turner wrote that if he were placed on probation he would speak out against “the culture surrounded by binge drinking and sexual promiscuity that protrudes through what people think is at the core of being a college student.”
“At this point in my life, I never want to have a drop of alcohol again. I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed. I never want to experience being in a position where it will have a negative impact on my life or someone else’s ever again,” Turner wrote. “I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.”
The victim, in her statement, said she believed Turner “has failed to exhibit sincere remorse or responsibility for his conduct.”
“I fully respected his right to a trial, but even after twelve jurors unanimously convicted him guilty of three felonies, all he has admitted to doing is ingesting alcohol. Someone who cannot take full accountability for his actions does not deserve a mitigating sentence,” she said. “It is deeply offensive that he would try and dilute rape with a suggestion of ‘promiscuity’. By definition rape is not the absence of promiscuity, rape is the absence of consent, and it perturbs me deeply that he can’t even see that distinction.”
McCaskill said she thought the woman “did a magnificent job in that letter of making the case as to why this sentence was inappropriate.” “Her bravery was not just what she wrote in that letter. Her bravery was that she didn’t let the fact that she didn’t have perfect judgment that night stand in the way” of holding Turner accountable, she said.
“The fact that this one woman was drinking and was willing to stand, ‘Well, you know, you were drunk’ — if you had to have perfect judgment to be the victim of a crime, really our prisons would have a lot of vacancies,” she said.
McCaskill, who specialized in cases involving sex crimes as a prosecutor in Missouri, also empathized with the prosecutor, saying, “I think it would be heartbreaking to be on a case like that.”
Two years ago, Gillibrand and McCaskill teamed up to examine possible changes to federal policy aiming at campus sexual assault, which often goes unreported. They’ve sponsored the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which would require colleges that participate in student assistance programs to form memoranda of understanding with local police for sexual violence investigations and release more specific information about reported sex offenses and their dispositions.
“The legislation that we are trying to get through would clean up some of those problems within Title IX,” McCaskill said, referring to the education law that aims to prevent discrimination based on sex. The bill has 36 co-sponsors, including both Democrats and Republicans. But critics say some of the legislation’s provisions would lead to unfair treatment of the accused.
McCaskill made clear that the legislation deals with how colleges and university handle sexual assault on campus, noting that in the California case, the victim was not a student.
“There’s nothing in the legislation that impacts what happened in Stanford,” McCaskill said. “What happened in Stanford was a successful criminal prosecution with a judge who I think made a mistake in the sentencing.”
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden shared with BuzzFeed News an open letter he wrote to the victim. Biden drafted the Violence Against Women Act when he was a senator and now helps promote the White House’s “It’s On Us” initiative, which encourages college students and others to intervene before sexual assault can occur.
“I am in awe of your courage for speaking out — for so clearly naming the wrongs that were done to you and so passionately asserting your equal claim to human dignity,” Biden wrote. “And 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.”
“I do not know your name — but I know that a lot of people failed you that terrible January night and in the months that followed,” Biden wrote.
He added, “And while the justice system has spoken in your particular case, the nation is not satisfied. And that is why we will continue to speak out.”
The same day, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) read aloud experts from the victim’s statement on the House floor and asked it to be introduced into the official record.
“Mr. Speaker, I was a prosecutor and a criminal court judge in Texas for over 30 years. I met a lot of rape victims and learned how these attacks sometimes devastate their lives. This judge got it wrong,” Poe said. “There’s an archaic philosophy in some courts that sin ain’t sin as long as good folk do it. In this case, the court and the defendant’s father wanted a pass for the rapist because he was a big-shot swimmer. The judge should be removed. The rapist should do more time for the dastardly deed that he did that night. This arrogant defendant has appealed the sentence. I hope the appeals court does grant the appeal and make it right and overturn the pathetic sentence and give him the punishment he deserves.”
McCaskill and her allies have been working with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to attach provisions from CASA to the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill. She said that route “is our best chance of getting it done this year.” The provisions most likely to pass, McCaskill said, are a requirement to designate confidential advisers for victims and the requirement for schools to establish MOUs with local law enforcement. Another provision calls for the Department of Education to conduct a survey asking students at schools across the country about their experiences with sexual violence.
“One of the practical problems with these cases is who does what when,” McCaskill said, adding, “Many times the survivors that we have spent time with, they didn’t realize exactly how the two systems intersected before it was too late.”