Voters appeared likely to remove from office a California judge who drew worldwide condemnation for giving a six-month jail sentence to a Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, early returns in a special election showed.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, a former prosecutor appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, would become the first sitting judge recalled for more than 80 years in the state, which lets voters petition for elections to remove officials from office.
With 52 percent of precincts reporting, the campaign to unseat Persky, organized by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, had garnered support from nearly 59 percent of voters, compared with 41 percent opposing the recall, according to online returns posted by the county registrar.
Dauber issued a statement about 90 minutes after polls closed saying she was “cautiously optimistic”.
Cindy Seeley Hendrickson, the candidate she endorsed in a separate two-way race to succeed Persky, was leading with 70 percent of the vote. Her opponent, Angela Storey, trailed with 30 percent.
Persky came under fire in June 2016 for sentencing Stanford swim team member Brock Turner, then 20, to six months in the county jail and three years probation for three counts of sexual assault, a penalty widely denounced as too lenient.
Uproar over the sentencing was fueled in part by an open letter from the victim, who remains anonymous, recounting her ordeal in graphic terms.
Predating the #MeToo movement of women speaking out publicly against sexual harassment and abuse, the outcome of the Turner case became a symbol of how the U.S. justice system fails to take sex crimes seriously enough.
Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison. He had faced up to 14 years in prison, and under normal sentencing guidelines would have been likely to receive at least two years behind bars.
Turner was released after serving just three months of his six-month term and has since appealed against his conviction. He has had to register as a sex offender in his home state of Ohio.
California’s judicial oversight commission received thousands of complaints about the sentencing but concluded in its report that Persky was unbiased and acted in accordance with a probation report.
Probation officials had recommended a “moderate” county jail sentence followed by three years of probation and sex offender treatment. In addition to finding no evidence of bias, the judicial commission cleared Persky of misconduct and determined the sentence was legal and within the judge’s discretion.
Persky, himself a former Stanford athlete, held a news conference last month saying he had been bound by sentencing guidelines and recommendations of the probation department. He has asserted that his recall would undermine the independence of the judiciary.
“We ask judges to follow the rule of law and not the rule of public opinion,” he said at the time.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Tait and Peter Graff