Stanford students to protest sexual assault sentencing at graduation

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Students hold up a sign about rape during New Student Orientation on the Stanford University campus on Sept. 16, 2015. (Photo: Tessa Ormenyi / Associated Press)
Students hold up a sign about rape during New Student Orientation on the Stanford University campus on Sept. 16, 2015. (Photo: Tessa Ormenyi / Associated Press)

Stanford University students are planning to protest the outcome of Brock Allen Turner’s sexual assault case at graduation this weekend.

Protesters will carry signs and wear decorated caps to show their support for Turner’s victim during the “Wacky Walk,” a university tradition in which graduating students parade around the Stanford Stadium in colorful costumes, waving balloons, posters and other props ahead of the commencement ceremony.

The demonstration is just one example of the growing backlash over what many argue is an insufficient sentence for Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who was arrested in January 2015 after two other students pulled him off an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party. In March, the 20-year-old was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault.

Under California law, the suggested penalty for Turner’s charges is a minimum of two years in prison, but the prosecutors in this case recommended that Turner receive a six-year sentence. Last week, however, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in jail with probation, a decision that has prompted widespread outrage. On Thursday, news broke that Turner was slated to serve only three months of that sentence — a revelation sure to stoke even more outrage.

“I saw the same sort of verbiage being used: ‘What was she wearing? What was she drinking? What about this, and what about that?’” senior Brianne Huntsman told the Stanford Daily of Turner’s trial. Huntsman has been leading the effort to organize Saturday’s demonstration in cooperation with Turner’s victim. She told the campus paper that the objective of the protest is to pay tribute to the survivor in this case, as well as all survivors of sexual assault, and to urge university administrators to conduct a new campus climate survey to determine the prevalence of sexual assault.

“This is a place where we’re tackling big issues,” she said. “Yes, we’re having fun, but we’re also facing this broader issue affecting Stanford.”

Huntsman’s mission echoes similar requests outlined in a petition created by the student-run Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP). The petition, which has garnered more than 65,000 supporters at Change.org, calls on the university to publicly apologize to the survivor — who was not a Stanford student when she was assaulted by Turner — and also to offer her counseling and other services, issue a new campus climate survey on the frequency of sexual abuse at fraternities, and devote more school resources to sexual assault prevention.

ASAP co-founder Matthew Baiza told the Stanford Daily that, after reading the powerful letter Turner’s victim had delivered in court, “we realized the survivor didn’t get justice at all.”

“It sends the wrong message to survivors, students and the nation as a whole,” Baiza said.

On Monday, the university released a statement in response to what it called “a significant amount of misinformation circulating about Stanford’s role” in the Turner case.

“[The university] did everything within its power to assure that justice was served in this case, including an immediate police investigation and referral to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office for a successful prosecution,” reads the statement. “This was a horrible incident, and we understand the anger and deep emotion it has generated. There is still much work to be done, not just here, but everywhere, to create a culture that does not tolerate sexual violence in any form and a judicial system that deals appropriately with sexual assault cases.”

The backlash against Turner’s light sentence extends far beyond the Stanford campus.

In the wake of last week’s sentencing, a number of petitions have been created calling for Judge Persky to be removed from the bench. One of the petitions alone had received more than 900,000 signatures as of Thursday morning.

Persky had pointed to the former Stanford swimmer’s age and clean criminal history in explaining his decision.

“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” he told the court.

However critics questioned whether Persky’s own background as a Stanford alumnus and former captain of the university’s lacrosse team may have motivated him to go easy on the promising athlete.

“Judge Persky failed to see that the fact that Brock Turner is a white male star athlete at a prestigious university does not entitle him to leniency,” reads the Change.org petition, which was created by Maria Ruiz of Miami. “He also failed to send the message that sexual assault is against the law regardless of social class, race, gender or other factors. Please help rectify this travesty to justice.”

Outrage over Turner’s sentencing sparked the creation of other similar petitions by the advocacy group UltraViolet as well as Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber. However, whether any of these efforts have a chance at success remains unclear.

“Persky is technically up for reelection this year — but he is running unopposed, so his name will not appear on the ballot for California’s primary Tuesday, nor for the general election in November,” reads a recent BuzzFeed report in which several legal experts suggest that Persky’s dismissal, whether by recall vote or disciplinary action, is not likely. “Barring a write-in candidate, of which there are none right now, he will continue to occupy the seat he’s held since 2003.”

Persky has yet to comment publicly on the case since last week’s sentencing, but the bids for his dismissal might be the least of his worries. According to the New York Times, the judge and his family have also been inundated with threats of violence.

“People have been calling the court and leaving messages, and if someone answers, they say, ‘Tell your judge he can go to hell, and I hope his kids get raped and he rots in hell,’ ”

Gary Goodman, an attorney with the Santa Clara County public defender’s office, told the Times. “He’s getting threats over this, him and his family, from all over the country. Is that right?”

Indignation over the case’s outcome has also resulted in ramifications for Turner’s family and friends.

Over the weekend, New York Magazine’s The Cut published a letter that Turner’s childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen had written to Judge Persky in defense of the convicted rapist. Rasmussen, it turns out, also plays drums in a band called Good English, which had been scheduled to perform at a number of Brooklyn venues during the upcoming Northside music festival. By Tuesday afternoon, however, all of the band’s Brooklyn gigs had been canceled in response to an onslaught of complaints.

“We do not support victim blaming or rape apologists of any kind,” read a statement issued by Bar Matchless, announcing that Good English would no longer be performing at the venue.

Good English deactivated its Facebook account amid the fallout, and Rasmussen issued a lengthy statement about the character letter which, she wrote, “has now provided an opportunity for people to misconstrue my ideas into a distortion that suggests I sympathize with sex offenses and those who commit them or that I blame the victim involved.”

Rasmussen’s statement can be read in full at Brooklyn Vegan.

The Guardian also published excerpts from several other letters written to Judge Persky by Turner’s friends, relatives, former coaches and classmates. Another character witness, Turner’s high school guidance counselor, Kelly Owens, has also since apologized for writing a letter of support to the judge.

“In the statement I submitted to the Judge during the criminal proceedings and before sentencing referencing Brock’s character, I made a mistake,” Owens wrote in a letter to her Ohio school district. “Of course he should be held accountable. I pray for the victim, her family and all those affected by this horrible event. I am truly sorry for the additional pain my statement has caused. I tell my students they have to be accountable, and Brock is no exception.”

Persky noted that his decision to sentence Turner to a mere six months in jail was, at least in part, influenced by these letters. But it was another letter, read in court by Turner’s victim and later published by BuzzFeed, that really sparked renewed attention and outrage over a case that has received sporadic media coverage since Turner’s arrest in January 2015.

Though the 23-year-old, who has chosen to remain anonymous, pleaded with Judge Persky to not make “a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults” by issuing a lenient sentence, the backlash suggests that her words have influenced at least some of the public.

“I’m worried that my heart is going to grow too big for my chest,” the woman told the Guardian Monday in response to the support she’s received. “I’ve just been overwhelmed and speechless.”

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