Aaron Persky, the judge who sentenced Stanford athlete Brock Turner to a mere six months in prison after a jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on a sidewalk, was also at the helm of a controversial gang rape lawsuit in 2011 involving high-achieving athletes. During that trial, Persky allowed defense attorneys to present scantily-clad pictures of the plaintiff into evidence to dispute the charge that she suffered from post-traumatic stress after her attack.
In 2007, eight members of the De Anza College baseball team were investigated for the sexual assault of a 17-year-old girl. The Santa Clara Sheriff's Department and the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office led the investigation, but ultimately the DA's office did not file charges due to insufficient evidence. An uproar ensued over the decision, which resulted in the resignation of Santa Clara County District Attorney Dolores Carr. The young woman then sued ten boys involved in the alleged assault for $7 million. Before the trial began, Persky dismissed charges for two of the men. Six others settled out of court, and only two, Chris Knopf and Kenneth Chadwick, went to trial.
Persky allowed the defense team to enter Facebook photos of the plaintiff partying in Nebraska a year after her alleged assault. The photos showed the plaintiff in garter belts at a party, posing with a boy on a dorm room bed. They were intended to prove that she was not suffering from emotional damage or isolation. According to Mercury News, attorney Alison Crane asked, "Did you have PTSD when you did the acts shown in these pictures?" to which the plaintiff responded, "I'm not a doctor, but the fact that a doctor came up and said I do, I have a hard time with that. I was pretending to be fine."
You cannot tell from a photograph whether someone does or does not suffer from PTSD. "It's a much more complicated phenomenon than that," says Nancy Stockton, a therapist at Indiana University's Counseling and Psychotherapy Services. In fact, sexually suggestive photos such as the ones entered into evidence might even constitute evidence of trauma, rather than proof of its absence. "Risk-taking, substance abuse, hypersexuality: those are fairly common reactions to sexual trauma," Stockton says.
A jury exonerated Knopf and Chadwick.
Persky's decision to offer leniency to convicted rapist stands in stark contrast with the platform he ran on for his judgeship on in 2002. Persky's profile on the League of Women Voters website says, "I focus on the prosecution of sexually violent predators, working to keep the most dangerous sex offenders in custody and in mental hospitals." Persky was also on the board of the now-defunct Support Network for Battered Women, which has since merged with the YWCA of Silicon Valley. In a statement to Broadly, the YWCA declined to comment on any specific case but stated, "We are reminded every day of the imperative of our mission, our work to end violence and racism, and the importance of eradicating rape culture in society." They added, "We stand with survivors."
There is a growing online movement to recall Persky for his decision and comments regarding the Brock Turner sentencing: Persky infamously gave Turner six months in prison instead of the six years which the prosecution recommended. During sentencing, Persky said that he believed Turner "will not be a danger to others" and that "a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him." There are currently multiple Change.org petitions calling for Persky to be removed from the bench—one with 191,000 signatures—as well as Facebook group and a website funded by the Progressive Women Silicon Valley State PAC.
Persky is up for re-election this year and is running unopposed.
Before practicing law, Persky, like Turner, was an athlete at Stanford. Persky played lacrosse at the university and then was the assistant coach of a men's undergraduate lacrosse team while attending law school at Berkeley.
According to Mercury News, there are two ways to unseat Persky: Voters will need to turn in 600 signatures to trigger a write-in campaign come November. Or they can collect 58,634 signatures to start a countywide recall election.
In a press release sent to Broadly by the District Attorney's office, DA Jeff Rosen said, "While I strongly disagree with the sentence that Judge Persky issued in the Brock Turner case, I do not believe he should be removed from his judgeship."
Stanford law professor Michele Leslie Dauber is leading the recall efforts. "The judge had trouble seeing [Turner] as a violent offender when he was convicted of being a violent offender," Dauber tells Broadly.
Dauber's major complaint with Persky's sentencing is that it ignores state-mandated minimum sentencing for one of the crimes for which Turner was convicted: assault with intent to commit rape. California law demands a minimum sentence of two years, unless the judge finds the case "unusual." Persky found the defendant's youth, previous achievement, and consumption of alcohol to be mitigating factors on his sentence.
That describes every Stanford student," says Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention (Stanford ASAP) co-founder Stephanie Pham. Dauber agrees. "You're stripping the world 'unusual' of all meaning," she says. "If high achievement and consuming alcohol are going to be Get Out Of Jail Free cards, then we can't expect any campus sexual assault to be prosecuted to the letter of the law."
Turner's father asked Judge Persky for leniency, arguing that his son's life shouldn't be ruined by "20 minutes of action." Pham took particular offense to Turner's father's plea. "I think any father should be able to defend their son, but to diminish his son's actions like that—twenty minutes of action? Twenty seconds of action can kill someone," she says. "If we don't hold these people accountable, then they're just going to keep offending."
Once Stanford administrators learned about the details of the assault, they forbade Turner, once an Olympic hopeful, from setting foot on the campus again. Stanford ASAP wants the university to go farther by apologizing to the survivor of this case, and, in Pham's words, by issuing "an acknowledgement that rape happens here."