Brock Turner is out of jail. Santa Clara, California County Judge Aaron Persky is fighting to keep his job. And Donald Trump is on the loose. All result from a culture that marginalizes rape.
The Stanford Rape Case
At the time of his crime, Turner was a Stanford student-athlete from Dayton, Ohio. The police report of January 18, 2015 describes in graphic detail the events resulting in his conviction.
At around one o’clock on Sunday morning, two graduate students were cycling on a path behind two houses on the Stanford University campus, when they noticed Turner and a woman on the ground having sex. But the woman appeared to be unconscious. As they got off their bikes and approached Turner, the first witness yelled, “Hey.”
Turner stood up and ran.
One of the cyclists chased, caught, and tackled Turner. Minutes later, the police arrived. As they interviewed one of the cyclists, he broke down and cried while describing the horrific incident he’d witnessed. The victim remained unconscious and curled in a fetal position. Paramedics took her to the hospital, where she was unresponsive for three hours. After regaining consciousness, she had no recollection of Turner or the assault.
The report notes that when the police questioned Turner, he said that he’d met the victim at a party that evening. He’d consumed seven cans of beer and two swigs of whiskey before kissing her. Then, he said, the two went outside, wound up on the ground, and he fondled her. He said he was having a good time with the victim, who seemed to be enjoying herself.
The Trial and Sentencing
When Turner took the witness stand at his March 2016 trial, he showed the opposite of remorse. He said the victim had consented to everything that happened. She was on the ground because she had fallen down. The bicyclists attacked him for unknown reasons.
A unanimous jury convicted him on all charges. In various statements included in the pre-sentencing probation report, Turner found plenty of culprits to blame.
Alcohol: “Being drunk, I just couldn’t make the best decisions and neither could she.”
Peer pressure: “One needs to recognize the influence that peer pressure and the attitude of having to fit in can have on someone.”
College culture: “I know I can impact and change people’s attitudes towards the culture surrounded by binge drinking and sexual promiscuity that protrudes through what people think is at the core of being a college student… I want to demolish the assumption that drinking and partying are what make up a college lifestyle.”
The defense’s pre-sentencing memorandum persisted in a bizarre variation of the consent theme that the jury had rejected: “[N]o one can pinpoint exactly when the victim went from being conscious to being unconscious.”
As he decided what to do, Judge Persky must have suffered through a period of intense cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, he had been captain of Stanford men’s lacrosse team. On the other hand, his campaign biography for election to the bench in 2002 boasted, “[I am] a criminal prosecutor for the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, where I now prosecute sex crimes and hate crimes… In addition, I serve as an Executive Committee Member of the Support Network for Battered Women.”
Brock Turner’s victim sent an eloquent 12-page letter to the judge. She complained that probation would be “a soft timeout, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, and of the consequences of the pain I have been forced to endure.”
Turner could have received 14 years in prison. Judge Persky sentenced him to six months in the county jail. Public outrage followed. A petition to recall him has collected more than 1.3 million signatures. The Santa Clara County district attorney expressed publicly his lack of confidence in Persky and requested transfer of another sexual assault case to a different judge. A week before Turner’s release on September 2, Persky sought reassignment to the civil division.
Assessing the Damage
The economic modeling for this situation is straightforward. At a micro level, a criminal sentence is the price that the perpetrator pays for his or her wrongdoing — although the victim doesn’t receive anything of value in return.
The next step is the likelihood of conviction. In Turner’s case, the victim’s letter describes in detail the hellish experience of pursuing a sexual assault charge through trial. That’s one reason only 13 out of 1,000 sexual assaults get referred to prosecutors, and only seven lead to a felony conviction.
The final step is the sentence. At a macro level, a prison sentence reflects the severity with which society views an offense.Time off for good behavior cut Turner’s jail time in half.
At Turner’s June 2 hearing, the victim read a condensed version of her 7,000-word letter to the judge. It included her feelings after a post-attack shower:
“I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it. I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”
Which Takes Us To Trump
Five days after Brock Turner’s September 2 release, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reaffirmed his 2013 tweet (the misspelling was Trump’s):
“26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
“It is a correct tweet,” he told NBC interviewer Matt Lauer. “There are many people who think that that’s absolutely correct.”
Trump rambled on — complete with factual misstatements — to avoid the obvious implications of his original tweet, namely, that merely putting men and women together sets the scene for inevitable sexual assault. Rather than challenge Trump on his offensive premise, Lauer allowed him to dissemble without interruption.
Another line in the letter from Turner’s victim to Judge Persky connects the cultural dots from the Stanford case to Donald Trump’s tweet:
“The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly,” she wrote, “and we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.”
Unfortunately, that culture already exists. Trump’s full-throated defense of a tweet for which he refuses to express remorse embodies and emboldens it.