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Why the Stanford sexual assault case has become a national flashpoint, explained

Martin Valigursky /

When Brock Allen Turner, a 20-year-old former Stanford University student, was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, the verdict seemed to address a broader problem at Stanford and campuses across the country: the leniency accused sexual abusers are afforded while the lives of victims are turned upside down.

In June, Turner was sentenced to six months in county jail and three years' probation. He only served three months of his sentence.

It's a short sentence for being found guilty of three counts of sexual assault — a crime that carries a minimum penalty of two years (and as many as 14) in state prison under California law — and one that put the Santa Clara County judge, Aaron Persky, under a lot of scrutiny.

But on December 19, the California Commission on Judicial Performance concluded that there was no evidence Persky acted out of his bounds.

"The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged in judicial misconduct warranting discipline," the commission wrote in its ruling.

According to Persky, Turner had a clean record and was a good student — an All-American swimmer with Olympic dreams who had made a mistake. Anything more than six months and probation would have had a "severe impact" on Turner's future, Persky said in his ruling.

In a letter, Turner's father went so far as to say that any jail time at all was too harsh, calling for the judge to keep the sentencing to probation: "His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve," Dan Turner wrote, adding that his son is paying a "steep price" for "20 minutes of action."

The sentence, compounded by the father's letter, sparked outrage nationwide, including a petition calling to remove Persky from the bench, which accumulated more than 95,000 signatures. Persky ran for reelection this year unopposed.

What really captivated onlookers was the unnamed victim's response. The woman eloquently detailed her harrowing experience in a statement made directly to Turner in court. According to BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, the letter was read by the public nearly 5 million times over the following weekend and was widely circulated as a powerful response to pain.

"You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today," the victim said to Turner in court. "This is not a story of another drunk college hook­up with poor decision making. Assault is not an accident. Somehow, you still don’t get it. Somehow, you still sound confused."

Between law enforcement's failure to publicly release Turner's mug shot to media, Turner's light sentence, and the consistent references in news reports to Turner's squeaky-clean image as an All-American swimmer, this case sparked widespread dismay and revived a larger conversation about sexual assault, particularly its portrayal in the media.

While the case is part of a necessary conversation that seems to arise after every viral incident around sexual assault on campuses, justice in these cases can be inconsistent — and frustrating to victims, their allies, and their advocates.

The case

Brock Turner and his parents walk toward the Palo Alto courthouse for his trial in March.
Veronica Weber/

In January 2015, two Stanford University graduate students witnessed Turner, who was 19 at the time, sexually assaulting an unconscious, undressed woman behind a dumpster outside of a party at the Kappa Alpha fraternity house. When they approached the situation, Turner tried to run away; the graduate students restrained him and called the police.

The woman, then a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had come to the Stanford party with her sister, and left on a hospital gurney with bruises and scratches as a victim of assault.

In her statement to Turner in court, the victim explained her experience in the hospital in detail:

I was asked to sign papers that said "Rape Victim" and I thought something has really happened. My clothes were confiscated and I stood naked while the nurses held a ruler to various abrasions on my body and photographed them. The three of us worked to comb the pine needles out of my hair, six hands to fill one paper bag. To calm me down, they said it’s just the flora and fauna, flora and fauna. I had multiple swabs inserted into my vagina and anus, needles for shots, pills, had a Nikon pointed right into my spread legs. I had long, pointed beaks inside me and had my vagina smeared with cold, blue paint to check for abrasions.

It was supposed to be a night out with her little sister, still a Stanford University undergraduate. Half of the night is accounted for: At 9 pm, the victim was at home with her sister eating dinner and drinking. At 11 pm, the two arrived at the fraternity party, and 30 minutes later the woman texted her long-distance boyfriend.

Twenty minutes after that, she called him speaking incoherently; another 20 minutes later she called her boyfriend again, and then her sister, who had left the party to visit a friend's dorm. Both conversations were indiscernible, the boyfriend and sister testified. At 12:55 am, graduate students Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt saw Turner on top of the victim's "unresponsive" body. She didn't wake up until 4:15 am.

According to the police report, obtained by SFGate, Turner said he was drunk but remembered everything. "His head was a little fuzzy due to the effects of the alcohol, but he consciously decided to engage in the sexual activity with victim. He was having a good time with victim and stated that she also seemed to enjoy the activity," the report said. The report said the victim was breathing but completely unconscious.

The unnamed victim expected Turner to admit to the crime, settle, and formally apologize.

"I thought there is no way this is going to trial," she said in her statement to Turner.

But Turner hired an attorney and private investigators with the intent to fight the allegations in court. They were both intoxicated, his counsel argued; he had twice the legal driving blood alcohol concentration, and she had triple the legal driving BAC.

Turner stated that his accuser had expressed consent and that he was only walking away because he thought he was going to be sick from the alcohol — he tried to run only after the two graduate students tried to restrain him.

The jury found him guilty of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated person, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object.

The case was handled more directly than other high-profile sexual assault cases have been. There were witnesses and physical evidence on the victim's body, all refuting Turner's claims. There was even testimony that the victim had pulled away from Turner's attempt to kiss her on the dance floor earlier that evening.

In the end, Turner apologized in court. But the victim said she sensed he lacked genuine remorse; instead of apologizing for sexually assaulting another person, he focused on the alcohol consumed, she said.

"You said, 'I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life,'" the victim said. "A life, one life, yours — you forgot about mine. Let me rephrase for you: I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again."

The guilty verdict gave hope that there would be justice

Brock Turner and his mother walk to the courthouse for his preliminary hearing in October 2015.
Veronica Weber/

When the jury found Turner guilty, it seemed a high point in the way assault cases are handled.

"Today a jury of Santa Clara County residents gave a verdict, which I hope will clearly reverberate throughout colleges, in high schools, anywhere where there may be any doubt about the distinction between consent and sexual assault," District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a statement. "No means no, drunk means no, passed out means no, and sex without consent means criminal assault."

It was a message not often heard related to campus sexual assault cases, which are rarely reported on the university level and even less likely to be elevated to the police.

Eighty percent of student sexual assault victims do not elevate their cases to the police, according to a 2014 report from the Justice Department. Non-student victims report assaults only slightly more often (32 percent report). For victims, going to court means revisiting trauma, which in some cases means being subjected to pointed cross-examinations. On campuses, fewer than one in five female student victims seek help from victim services after an assault, according to the DOJ report.

Often, with cases that involve no witnesses and no physical evidence like a rape kit, sexual assault and rape cases are boiled down to "he said/she said" accounts. Because of this, seeking justice doesn't mean victims will find it. According to statistics from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, of 1,000 incidents of rape, 334 are reported, only seven of which get a felony conviction.

Stanford is one of many prominent colleges and universities across the country that have been scrutinized for their handling of sexual assault cases on campus. Slate's Emily Bazelon reports:

From 2005 to 2011, nine students were found responsible for sexual assault. One student was expelled, for violations involving multiple victims. The other eight received suspensions ranging from one quarter to eight quarters. The average sanction for sexual assault at Stanford is a four-quarter suspension. (Stanford confirmed those numbers.) And it’s definitely not just Stanford: In a yearlong investigation published in 2010, the Center for Public Integrity found that across the country, "students found ‘responsible’ for sexual assaults on campus often face little or no punishment from school judicial systems, while their victims' lives are frequently turned upside down."

That Santa Clara County jury seemed to have confronted a cycle of little to no punishment for those accused of sexual assault. But Persky's sentence seemed distinctly light: six months in county jail, plus probation, instead of two to 14 years in state prison.

District Attorney Rosen reiterated the seriousness with which he sees this case at Turner's sentencing last week, when he plainly stated, "The punishment does not fit the crime."

Turner's portrayal in the media was that of a good kid led astray

In the past year, the public has only seen Turner pictured during the highlights of his career: signing his Stanford acceptance letter, in his official Stanford swimming team photo, clean-shaven, in a suit. It was not until four days after being sentenced and months after a jury found him guilty that his mug shot was released.

It sparked a debate: Why was a smiling picture of a successful student athlete, and not his mug shot, the photo that accompanied articles about his guilt of three felony charges? Because he is white? A revered student athlete? Because sexual assault and consent are still so misunderstood?

It prompted a widespread discussion on social media. The Santa Clara Sheriff's Office released the recent mug shot to some news organizations on June 6, and Stanford released the original booking photo shortly after. The offices told the Cut the photos had not been released earlier due to confusion between the separate police agencies that handled the case.

Still, many of the articles chronicling the court proceedings asked how the image of an All-American Stanford University swimmer with Olympic dreams could be so quickly tarnished, seemingly following the messaging of Turner's legal counsel (like here and here).

"But his extraordinary yet brief swim career is now tarnished, like a rusting trophy," Michael Miller wrote at the Washington Post, in a post that was widely disparaged on social media:

Turner was a member of Stanford’s varsity swim team, one of the best in the country. He was an All-American swimmer in high school in Ohio, so good that he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team before he could vote.

Suddenly he was accused of rape.


Three years ago, Turner was named Oakwood High School’s athlete of the week. When a reporter for the Dayton Daily News asked him what words he lived by, he responded with a quote by Muhammad Ali.

"The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses — behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."

Turner was also asked where he hoped to be in 10 years.

"In residency to be a surgeon," he responded.

The victim herself had the perfect response:

How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me, and should not lessen the severity of his punishment. 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? 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.

Watch: 9 facts about violence against women everyone should know

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