California voters recall judge who sentenced Stanford rapist to only 6 months in jail

Judge Aaron Persky, who gave a light sentence to Brock Turner, becomes first California judge recalled since 1932

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 6, 2018 11:52AM (EDT)

Brock Turner (AP/Greene County Sheriff's Office)
Brock Turner (AP/Greene County Sheriff's Office)

The controversial judge who gave a shockingly lenient sentence to Stanford University rapist Brock Turner was officially recalled from the bench on Tuesday.

Judge Aaron Persky will be replaced on the ballot for this fall's general election by two women, civil rights attorney Angela Storey and prosecutor Cindy Hendrickson, according to USA Today. The controversy surrounding Persky involved his decision to give Turner a six-month sentence, with the possibility of it being reduced to a three-month sentence for good behavior, even though Turner could have faced up to 14 years in prison. Turner had been convicted of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, penetration of an intoxicated person and penetration of an unconscious person.

Persky justified his decision by arguing that both Turner and his victim had been drinking, that Turner did not have a previous criminal record and that he was worried about the "severe" impact that a prison sentence would have on Turner's life. After Turner served three months in prison, he was released because of the good behavior qualification, although he was put on parole and would spend the rest of his life on the sex offender registry.

One factor that was believed to have also motivated Persky's decision was a statement read by Turner's father defending his character. Turner's dad complained that his son "will never be his happy go lucky self with that easy going personality and welcoming smile," arguing that he had already paid "a steep price" for "20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life."

By contrast, the victim of Turner's assault read a victim impact statement that went viral after it was published by BuzzFeed. It included this line:

After a few hours of this, they let me 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.

Defending Persky were legal experts who expressed concern that judges might feel pressured to give harsher sentences in the future if Persky was punished by voters for giving a lighter one. Some also pointed to an Associated Press review of Persky's cases in which it was found that, in those where a defendant's race was listed on the court records, there was no evidence that Persky had been racially biased in terms of how he handed out his verdicts. Persky himself had been reelected to a six-year term in 2016, only days after issuing his ruling on Turner, because he had drawn no opponents on the ballot in that election cycle.

That said, there was at least one conspicuous case in which Persky gave a three-year prison sentence to a Hispanic defendant who admitted to sexually assaulting his female roommate. Moreover, when Stanford law professor Michele Dauber led the effort to recall Persky shortly after the Turner sentencing, she led a team that discovered other occasions when Persky gave unusually light sentences to individuals accused of domestic and sexual abuse. According to The Huffington Post:

To convince voters that Persky was unfit for the bench, Dauber knew she needed to demonstrate that Turner’s sentence was not an isolated bad decision. Her teaching assistant, a graduate student named Emma Tsurkov, was also working on the recall. Dauber asked her to dig into the previous 18 months in which Persky had been hearing criminal cases. Tsurkov found some cases that appalled them both. In 2015, Ikaika Gunderson, an aspiring 21-year-old football player, had beaten and choked his girlfriend, then pushed her out of a parked car. Gunderson pleaded no contest to a felony count of domestic violence. Persky agreed to delay Gunderson’s sentencing for a year so he could attend school at the University of Hawaii and try out for the football team, provided he took a domestic violence class and attended weekly AA meetings. Robert Chain had been caught with child pornography, including an image of an infant being penetrated. Chain had expressed remorse and pleaded guilty. He got off with time served: two days in jail. In 2016, Keenan Smith, a football player at the College of San Mateo, was convicted of domestic violence after hitting his girlfriend and punching a bystander who tried to defend her. After he pleaded guilty to misdemeanors as part of a plea deal, he was sentenced to 120 days in a weekend work program.

Persky's recall was hardly the only major political event to occur during the Tuesday elections in California.

Because the state has a distinct primary system in which the two biggest vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of their party affiliation, both Democrats and Republicans had various concerns of being "locked out" in November. This did not happen in the California governor's race, where Democrat Gavin Newsom will run against Republican John Cox, who was endorsed by President Donald Trump. In the California Senate election, however, two Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former State Senator Kevin de León — are going to face off against each other, with Feinstein widely expected to emerge the victor.

Matters remain more uncertain in a trio of important congressional races, according to CNN. In the 39th district primary, the only candidate certain to have won is former California State Assemblywoman Young Kim, and because she is a Republican, the Democrats will need one of their candidates to place second in order to have an opponent on the ballot in November. Meanwhile, in the 48th district primary, incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher made it to the next round, and as a member of the GOP, his victory also requires the Democratic party to have at least one challenger place second in order to make it to the next round. Meanwhile, no candidate has managed to officially clinch a spot on the ballot in California's 49th district.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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2018 Midterm Elections Aaron Persky Brock Turner California Stanford Rapist