Six months in county jail. Three months on good behavior. That’s the distressingly gentle sentence that Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky gave rapist Brock Turner last week.
The 20-year-old former Stanford University “swimming star” was convicted of three felonies for sexually assaulting an intoxicated, unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside of a campus fraternity house in January of last year. His egregiously lenient sentence is infuriating enough.
But I’m also angry at Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold.
His opinion piece, published by the South Bay daily the morning before the sentence, perpetuated race and class biases and effectively blamed the victim for her own rape.
As reported by news outlets nationwide, Turner and his victim both had blood-alcohol levels far beyond the legal limit that night in 2015. Two Stanford graduate students on bicycles saw Turner on top of his victim behind a dumpster. They approached, he ran, they chased and caught him. Turner faced up to fourteen years in prison for his unanimous conviction in late March.
So, why did probation officials argue that he should only get six months in jail?
As Herhold noted, Turner paraded many witnesses that testified to his good character. And he appeared genuinely remorseful. Plus, he had no prior criminal record, and his lawyer argued that he was not a threat to society. The judge even stated that prison would have a “severe impact” on Turner.
But the fact that those subjective judgments so easily fell in Turner’s favor says far more about race and class privilege than it does about his character.
Our society elevates affluent, white men. That privelege has cheered for Turner his entire life — and right through to the end of this trial. This is offensive and unfair to those who have received heavier sentences for far less-serious crimes.
And it’s even more insulting to the victim.
About Turner’s remorse: Of course he regrets that he messed up his chances of going to the Olympics. But he has not admitted any accountability for his crime. Rather, he consistently passes the blame off to the dangers of “college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that,” as he put it. He stands by his story that the victim wanted it. He even plans to appeal his conviction. This kind of adamant obliviousness is a danger to society.
Herhold audaciously echoed Turner’s defense attorneys. “For the rest of his life, Turner will have to register as a convicted sex offender,” he wrote. “That effectively closes many career avenues. It’s a permanent blight.”
What about the rest of his victim’s life? She will have to live with the trauma of that assault — an effect much more profound than a blight on one’s resume.
The victim delivered a twelve-page statement to her attacker — a must-read full transcription was published online last Thursday — where she described in detail how the assault completely derailed her life. “My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me,” she wrote. “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
But what’s perhaps most problematic about Herhold’s piece is the way he too blamed college-drinking culture, which he referred to as the “unindicted co-conspirator” in the case.
He cited that the victim admitted to having blacked out on several prior occasions. And he claimed that such details make the situation “messy.”
Do they? College binge drinking may be an issue. But it is not the primary issue at hand. And arguing so implies that the victim should assume some responsibility — that, because the victim blacked out, to some extent she deserved her fate. That’s not far from saying that because a girl wore a short skirt, she was asking for it.
The unindicted co-conspirator is not college drinking culture. It is rape culture, and lack of education on consent. It is Turner feeling entitled to a stranger’s body. As the victim put it: “Alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked.”
Herhold argued that we should view the case in context. But he forgot to mention the context at nearby UC Berkeley, where a series of accusations revealed that male professors have been sexually harassing female students and emerging relatively unscathed.
Before the sentencing, Herhold urged the judge not to make an example out of Turner. After the fact, I happen to agree: Let’s not let another privileged rapist get off easy ever again.