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Brock Turner loses appeal of sexual assault conviction

Turner at one point claimed that he was only guilty of “sexual outercourse.”

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Brock Turner leaves the Santa Clara County Main Jail on September 2, 2016, in San Jose, California.
Brock Turner leaves the Santa Clara County Main Jail on September 2, 2016, in San Jose, California.
Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group/TNS via Getty Images

Brock Turner, the former Stanford University student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, on Wednesday lost his appeal to a higher court.

Turner’s case previously drew national attention after he received a six-month sentence, of which he served just three months, for sexually assaulting a drunk and unconscious woman. The sentence was widely seen as an example of privilege in action, since Turner was a white Stanford student and a member of the school swim team. As CNN host Jake Tapper noted at the time, “What if it had been a black or Latino man at a less prominent college?”

The sentence also led to a successful recall effort of Aaron Persky, the judge who oversaw Turner’s case.

Turner, however, appealed the sentence, at one point arguing that he had only committed “sexual outercourse.” The California Court of Appeals rebuked Turner’s claim that there was not enough evidence against him, stating, “That argument lacks merit.”

Turner was accused of sexually assaulting a 22-year-old woman, whose identity has remained anonymous, in 2015. Turner, who was 19 at the time, and the victim were drunk following a fraternity party. But it was Turner who, behind a dumpster as the victim lay on the ground, unresponsive, took off her underwear and penetrated her vagina with his fingers.

According to court records, two Stanford students caught Turner in the act, Turner then attempted to flee, and the students tackled him and held him down until the police arrived.

The victim said she found out the details of the assault on the news, because she had been too intoxicated to remember the specifics. According to police reports, she remained unconscious for three hours after paramedics arrived, even as they administered treatment.

Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail and three years of probation after he was convicted of three sexual assault felonies in 2016, although he ultimately served only three months in jail. Prosecutors had asked for six years in prison, and the maximum possible sentence was 14 years.

The judge who oversaw Turner’s case was recalled

Turner’s sentence drew national outrage, eventually culminating in a successful recall effort against Persky this year.

The recall campaign, led by Stanford Law School professor Michele Dauber, argued that the Turner sentence was part of a broader problem with Persky. Advocates pointed to other cases in which they said Persky went easy on sexual or domestic violence offenders, including one case involving a man who attacked his girlfriend but whose sentence was delayed by Persky so he could try to play football at the University of Hawaii for the year.

“Judge Persky has a history of what we regard as bias in cases of sexual assault, sexual violence, violence against women,” Dauber previously told me, “particularly where the perpetrator is an athlete or otherwise privileged in some way.”

Opponents of the effort, meanwhile, were worried about what a successful recall campaign would mean for the broader criminal justice system. Many of them saw the Turner sentence as inappropriate. But they worried that if judges suddenly have to worry that lenient sentences could lead to public outrage and even a recall campaign, then maybe they will err toward harsher sentences — which could perpetuate mass incarceration.

“The simple story is it’s going to make judges more punitive,” John Pfaff, the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, previously told me. “Why take that risk?”

There’s a bit of judicial arithmetic here: Judges tend to get into trouble if a sentence is too short — the sentence itself could spark outrage, or the early release of an inmate may lead to trouble for the judge if the ex-inmate goes on to commit another crime. Meanwhile, a stringent sentence will rarely get any attention because people are simply much less likely to empathize with the perpetrator of a crime. As Pfaff said, “Being ‘tough on crime’ remains free for judges.”

If this applies across the board, more punitive sentences could disproportionately impact poor, minority groups, since poor minorities are disproportionately likely to be arrested and incarcerated.

For more on the Turner case and the subsequent recall effort, read Vox’s explainer.