Sometimes to get to the beginning you have to start at the end.
Thursday afternoon in a Santa Clara courthouse, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced 23-year-old former Stanford student Brock Turner for sexually assaulting an unconscious female student behind a dumpster on the Stanford campus over a year and a half ago.
Turner — an All-American swimmer with Olympic aspirations — could have been sentenced to a maximum of 14 years in a state prison. Prosecutors asked Persky to give Turner six years. Instead, acting upon the advice of probation officers, Turner received six months in a county jail from the judge — with the possibility of only serving three months with good behavior.
Citing Turner’s age and lack of criminal history, Persky explained the sentence thusly: “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him…I think he will not be a danger to others.”
And that is the latest dispatch from the toxic American rape culture that continues to thrive in America where victims of sexual assault might as well be bagged and tagged afterward along with all the other evidence and filed away with their testimony and impact statements.
There is no question about what happened that January evening; this wasn’t something that happened behind closed dormitory doors. Brock was spotted on top of his victim by two passing students, he bolted and they they tackled him and held him until campus security showed up. The victim woke up the next morning in a hospital with no recollection of what happened.
As his victim stated when she addressed her attacker in court before his sentencing:
“In newspapers, my name was “unconscious intoxicated woman”, ten syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was. I had to force myself to relearn my real name, my identity. To relearn that this is not all that I am. That I am not just a drunk victim at a frat party found behind a dumpster, while you are the All-American swimmer at a top university, innocent until proven guilty, with so much at stake. I am a human being who has been irreversibly hurt, who waited a year to figure out if I was worth something.”
Of course no sexual assault trial is complete without finding fault with the victim and an excuse for the victimizer. In this case, they were both drunk at the time after a party.
As Brock said in court in defense of himself: “Being drunk I just couldn’t make the best decisions and neither could she.”
According to Scott Herhold of the Mercury News, that alone was reason enough to give Turner a slap on the wrist.
You don’t have to buy Turner’s story that he so was drunk himself that he did not realize she had passed out. But it’s hard to review this case without concluding that it has roots in a culture of campus drinking, the unindicted co-conspirator here.
And that brings me to my final point. Because of a long history of ignoring sexual assaults on campuses, particularly by athletes, we have become more vigilant about prosecuting them. And that is commendable.
But there is a temptation to see the Turner case as a chance to send a message, rather than to weigh all the messy human elements involved.
No, no, no and no.
Blaming drinking for sexual assault is “she was asking for it” for polite company. Drunkenness is not a “get out of jail free card” for rapists. Being drunk when you commit a crime doesn’t allow you to assume the mantle of “I’m also a victim” when you do bad things under the influence.
And a drunk woman is not an invitation to take what you think is yours.
This isn’t about college athletes who treat their campuses like they are rape buffets. It’s about a very specific criminal case where the evidence was overwhelming and the sentence should have been commensurate with the crime. There is a more than enough that is already wrong with the American way of justice where your fate often depends upon your race, your economic status or even your last name. We don’t need blind justice sneeking a peek to see if a promising athlete is involved.
You can read the victim’s complete statement here, but I’ll leave you with this in her own words:
The probation officer weighed the fact that he has surrendered a hard earned swimming scholarship. If I had been sexually assaulted by an un-athletic guy from a community college, what would his sentence be? 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? How fast he swims does not lessen the impact of what happened to me.
The Probation Officer has stated that this case, when compared to other crimes of similar nature, may be considered less serious due to the defendant’s level of intoxication. It felt serious. That’s all I’m going to say.
He is a lifetime sex registrant. That doesn’t expire. Just like what he did to me doesn’t expire, doesn’t just go away after a set number of years. It stays with me, it’s part of my identity, it has forever changed the way I carry myself, the way I live the rest of my life.
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