A former University of Colorado student avoided prison time yesterday after he was convicted of sexually assaulting a half-conscious woman following a St. Patrick's Day party in 2014. Instead, a Boulder County judge gave Austin James Wilkerson 20 years to life on probation and two years in county jail on a work release program.
The details of the case, as well as the sentence, share similarities with that of former Stanford University student Brock Turner. Wilkerson was found guilty in May of sexually assaulting a "helpless" victim and unlawful sexual contact. According to the The Guardian, he pretended to take care of the now-21-year-old after she had too much to drink, even going so far as to check her pulse in front of his friends. Later, he allegedly told them he had "fingered a girl while passed out" and "let his hands wander."
Before the trial, The Guardian reports, a university investigator said Wilkerson admitted he made "repeated advances on the victim, but that she rebuffed him each time," and that he felt "pissed off," calling her a "fucking bitch." He also allegedly admitted to penetrating her, even though he "wasn't getting much of a response from her."
When he took the stand at trial, however, Wilkerson testified that the sex was consensual. Prosecutors say the defendant changed his account of the details of that night repeatedly, calling him "highly manipulative and deceptive."
Have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me that night.
During yesterday's hearing, the victim asked district judge Patrick Butler to send Wilkerson to prison. "Have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me that night," she pleaded. She left shortly after, missing Wilkerson's apology, in which he confessed to his crimes.
Butler levied a sentence that will allow Wilkerson, who has since been removed from the University of Colorado, to go to work and school during the day, and spend his nights in jail.
"I don't know that there is any great result for anybody," the judge told the Boulder Daily Camera. "Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated."
A survey conducted by the University of Colorado found that 28 percent of undergraduate female respondents reported being sexually assaulted, including non-consensual touching and rape, at some point during their college career. Of those who admitted to being sexually assaulted, only 18 percent reported the incident to authorities. The primary reason given by those who chose not to report was that they "did not think it was serious enough to report."
Rebecca Kaplan is the director of It's On Us, a White-House-backed initiative working to help end sexual violence on college campuses. She says one of the reasons why victims hesitate to report sexual misconduct is fear—the fear of not getting support and of being re-victimized by the legal system.
"To date, a lot of work has been done to try and make survivors feel more supported and to make the process more transparent, but we're just not there yet," she says.
The victim in Wilkerson's case mentioned victim-blaming in the hearing yesterday, the Boulder Daily Camera reports. "Worst of all is the victim blaming," she said. "'If I hadn't been drunk, this wouldn't have happened. If I hadn't gotten separated, this wouldn't have happened.' Yet it was excusable for him to rape me because he was drunk?"
Although Kaplan says she can't comment on this specific case, she did speak generally to public outcry following what many see as a light sentence for sexual assault. "I think it's showing the culture is starting to change. For a long time, this wasn't an issue that was talked about very openly in the media [or] on campus even," she says. "As much as we can talk about the problems that exist after a case unfolds, what's really important is to prevent this from happening in the first place."