Stanford rape case: Is this justice?
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TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains mention of and information about sexual assault, violence, and rape that may be triggering to survivors.
On the night of Jan. 17, 2015, two lives were irreparably changed for the worse. On this night, Stanford University freshman Brock Turner digitally raped an unconscious 23-year-old woman, who will hereby be referred to as Emily Doe, behind a dumpster. Two Swedish graduate students caught Turner in the act and called the police. Over the course of the past 18 months, Turner has been on trial for three counts of sexual assault: assault with the intent to commit rape of an intoxicated or unconscious person, sexual penetration (digital) of an intoxicated person, and sexual penetration (digital) of an unconscious person. Turner faced a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. After being convicted of all three counts and being sentenced to only six months in prison with three months of probation, the judge presiding over the case, Aaron Persky, went under fire from the media. The story was aided by the debut of Doe’s 12-page letter to Turner, which recounts the night of the event, the aftermath, and the trial in graphic detail. Since then, character letters written by Turner’s father, Dan Turner, and Turner’s childhood friend, Leslie Rasmussen, have also been released and have been scrutinized by the media and public.
Clarion photo Ashley Lytle
Doe’s heartbreaking letter to Turner tragically and poetically describes the horrors of something that no person should ever have to encounter. Yet, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sexual assault is something that one in five women and one in 16 men will experience while in college.
“I learned what happened to me the same time everyone else in the world learned what happened to me,” penned Doe. Due to the graphic nature of the details in this case, the Clarion has opted to revoke mention of content that may be upsetting to readers. For those inclined, a link to Doe’s full letter is available at the end of this passage.
January 17 started out like any other night. Doe sat down to a dinner with her family, chatting with her younger sister who was visiting for the weekend. Doe had planned on a quiet night watching her favorite TV show and reading a novel, while her sister went to a party with some friends, but after some persuasion on her sister’s part, Doe agreed to spend the night out. In her letter, Doe recalled the innocent nature of the group, her sister poking fun at the beige cardigan Doe had brought along. Doe’s sister commented that she looked like a librarian, and Doe embraced the name, referring to herself as “big mama,” since she’d likely be the oldest person at the party. This was before the night spun terrifyingly and irreversibly out of control.
“The next thing I remember, I was in a gurney in a hallway.” Doe had dried blood and abrasions covering her body, her hair was chocked full of pine needles and leaves, and her underpants were missing. After being asked to sign rape victim papers, Doe underwent a series of rape tests that confirmed what she most feared: she had, in fact, been sexually assaulted.
In that hospital, Doe became a victim. “[I] decided, I don’t want my body anymore,” wrote Doe. “I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else.”
Over the next few weeks, word of the rape spread across Doe’s town. “One day, I was at work, scrolling through the news on my phone, and came across an article. In it, I read and learned for the first time about [what happened to me]. …In the next paragraph, I read something that I will never forgive; I read that, according to him, I liked it.”
She continued, “At the bottom of the article, after I learned the graphic details of my own sexual assault, the article listed his swimming times.”
Turner had been caught. Doe thought that he would certainly plead guilty, and that the trial would be over. It didn’t work out like that.
Instead, Turner didn’t plead guilty—he hired a team of very powerful lawyers to represent him. Turner claimed that he was innocent, that Doe, in her unconscious state, had eagerly consented to having sex with him. Under this notion, Doe was forced to stand witness to the trial, where she relived the night of Jan. 17 every day for a year. As a witness, Turner’s attorneys’ questions were “a game of strategy, as if I could be tricked out of my own worth. …I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life…inane questions [that] accumulated trivial details to try to find an excuse for a guy who had me half-naked before even bothering to ask for my name.”
Doe was told that because she couldn’t remember what happened, Turner would write the script. She was told that her testimony was weak, incomplete, and that the only reliable story was Turner’s. Said Doe, “And then it came time for [Turner] to testify, and I learned what it meant to be revictimized.”
“Brock had a strange new story, almost sounded like a poorly written young adult novel with kissing and dancing and hand holding and lovingly tumbling onto the ground. And most important, in his new story, there was suddenly consent.”
It is important to mention here that under California law, a person cannot consent to having sexual intercourse while under the influence of alcohol or while unconscious. While Turner claims that Doe gave consent by telling him “Yes,” she legally could not consent to any of the night’s actions.
“Your attorney has repeatedly pointed out, well, we don’t know exactly when she became unconscious. And you’re right, maybe I was still fluttering my eyes and wasn’t completely limp yet. That was never the point. I was too drunk to speak English, too drunk to consent way before I was on the ground. I should have never been touched in the first place.”
“To sit under oath and inform all of us that yes, I wanted it, yes, I permitted it, and that you are the victim attacked by the [graduate students] for reasons unknown to you is appalling, is demented, is selfish, is damaging. It is enough to be suffering. It is another thing to have someone ruthlessly working to diminish the gravity of validity of this suffering.”
Doe took the latter half of the letter to bring attention to some of Turner’s statements made in court, primarily Turner’s address of alcohol and Stanford’s “party school” reputation being to blame for the sexual assault. To this, Doe proclaimed, “This is not a story of another drunk hookup with poor decision making. Assault is not an accident.”
To read the full letter, click here.
Shabby Sentencing and an Unjust Judge
Of the three counts of sexual assault that Turner was on trial for, he was charged with all three. The maximum sentence for his crime was 14 years, and the minimum was two. Judge Persky sentenced Turner to six months, with three months of probation for good behavior.
Obviously, Turner’s sentence was ridiculous, unjust, and very questionable. By all accounts, Turner is practically a rapist—yet, he only has to spend three months behind bars? That’s not just crazy. That’s dangerous.
Rightfully, since Turner’s sentencing, memes have been floating around the internet comparing Turner’s sentence to possession charges. This details the skewed properties in the justice system. A rapist is charged with six months in jail, while a dealer has to spend six years behind bars for selling marijuana, a non-violent crime. There is something seriously twisted about that logic.
Since the sentencing, Judge Persky has been harshly scrutinized by the media. A petition to remove Persky from the bench (Click here to sign the petition) has garnered nearly 1.3 million supporters and counting. While Persky’s ruling was unusual, it is important to note that it was authorized. In this case, it is legal to depart from the minimum sentence according to a few special circumstances: Turner is a first time offender, Turner is young, and that because Turner was intoxicated, the crime is legally considered to be substantially less serious than the circumstances typically present in a sexual assault case. Does that make the ridiculously short sentence legal? It does. Does it make it right? Not one bit.
Persky is known to make unusual rulings, especially when in favor of sport stars like Turner. Fortunately thanks to the petition, Persky has been removed from a recent sexual assault case. This followed protest from the selected jury who unitedly refused to serve under Persky’s rule. “After…the recent turn of events,” said District Attorney, Jeff Rosen, “we lack confidence that Judge Persky can fairly participate in this upcoming hearing.” Who knows? Maybe if the petition attracts more attention, Persky might just be removed from the bench after all.
A Shocking Find
The American Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object…without the consent of the victim.” Under this definition, one that many states use within their own legal systems, Turner is considered to be a rapist.
However, under California Penal Code Section 261, rape is defined as “an act of [nonconsensual] sexual intercourse [with sexual intercourse being defined as “any penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or genitalia by the penis, as proved by People v. Karsal (1982)].” Since Turner digitally assaulted Doe, meaning that his hand was used, Turner’s actions do not qualify as rape under this definition. Instead, Turner was tried for sexual assault, which is a lesser degree than rape and qualifies for a much lighter sentence. Therefore, because Turner was tried in the state of California, he is not considered to be a rapist, even though he would fall under the category in the great majority of the United States. This also means that if he had been tried practically anywhere else, Turner would have been granted a much steeper maximum sentence. Even if the judge had departed from that as well, there is no denying that Turner would have spent more time in jail.
Even more shockingly, this legal definition of rape also excludes the possibility for rape to be committed by a woman without the assistance of a man. Since Section 261 describes rape as penetration of the vagina by the penis, any person without a penis cannot rape another person in the state of California. Who knows how many people have gotten off the hook for rape because of that outdated and absurd slight in terminology.
The Endless Array of Excuses
“I wish I had the ability to go back in time and never pick up a drink that night, let alone interact with [Doe]… At this point in my life, I never want to have a drop of alcohol again… I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months of school. …I’ve lost employment opportunity, my reputation, and most of all, my life. …I want no one, male or female, to have to experience the destructive consequences of making decisions under the influence of alcohol. I want to be a voice of reason in a time where people’s attitudes and preconceived notions about partying and drinking have already been established.” The quote above is part of the statement that Turner released in relation to this case. Throughout the entire acknowledgment, Turner never once recognizes the root issue of the offense—sexual assault. He never admits any wrongdoing besides consuming alcohol underage, and Turner places 100 percent blame upon corruption by Stanford’s “party culture.”
Because of the spotlight put on this case, Turner has a unique opportunity to speak out in a way that sex offenders rarely have the chance to. With this podium, Turner could address a plethora of concerns to bring light to: recognizing consent, the prevalence of sexual assault and rape on college campuses, ways to help survivors, and so many other issues. Instead, Turner chooses to acknowledge the most insignificant of concerns.
Certainly, underage drinking is not a good thing. The consumption of alcohol makes for bad decision-making and plentiful impulsivity. And surely, an unregulated party culture has its drawbacks. But never, under any circumstances, is alcohol a cause for rape. Alcohol is not the problem. It is a factor, but it is not the end-all be-all. And bottom line, alcohol does not turn a Good Samaritan into a rapist. That is something that is predestined.
As for Doe, she advises, “You have been convicted of violating me, intentionally, forcibly, sexually, with malicious intent, and all you can do is admit to consuming alcohol… Figure out how to take responsibility for your own conduct.”
Furthermore, Turner also addressed that he was in the process of establishing a program to “speak out against the college campus drinking culture and the sexual promiscuity that goes along with that.”
Doe responded best. “It is deeply offensive to me that he would try to dilute rape with a suggestion of ‘promiscuity.’ By definition, rape is the absence of promiscuity, rape is the absence of consent, and it perturbs me deeply that he can’t even see that distinction.”
Comments from the Peanut Gallery
Some believe that Turner’s lenient sentencing was partially influenced by family- sponsored character letters that were received in court. Since the character letters have been released to the public, the media has eagerly dissected them, and found two poignant examples of attributed ignorance.
Turner’s father, Dan, had this to say about the case: “[Brock’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of an action out of his 20 plus years of life.”
I wouldn’t be the first to say that this comment makes my skin crawl. If Brock seems to be diluting the severity of rape with his suggestions of promiscuity according to Doe, I’d like to see what she thinks of his father. All I can say is, like father, like son.
Leslie Rasmussen’s character letter is the other statement that deservedly went under fire within the past few weeks. The childhood friend of Turner’s said, “I am not blaming [Doe] directly for this, because that isn’t right. But where do we draw the line and stop worrying about being politically correct every second of the day and see that rape on campuses isn’t always because people are rapists.” Anyone with a sensible, working brain would respond negatively to this comment. The definition of rape, as listed by Dictionary.com, is described as “Unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person, with or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object without the consent of the victim.” By definition, a rapist is a person who perpetrates this act. Rasmussen’s statement, all the ignorant, obviously does not hold a single grain of legitimacy.
“I think that people who rape are rapists,” said Julia Kohn-Brown, creator of Cleveland’s own Students Active For Ending Rape (S.A.F.E.R.). “I also think that blaming individuals isn’t what we need. We need to hold people accountable.”
Rasmussen also detailed that the reason rape happens is because universities market themselves as party schools and promote a drinking culture. But again, alcohol is not the issue, here. The issue is that society has created an environment where people think it’s OK to have sex with someone who is unconscious. We don’t have “clouded judgement” on alcohol guidelines, as Rasmussen states. Rather, we have a blurred vision of what it means to consent to having sex with someone. A person can’t consent when they’re drunk, asleep, or unconscious. Isn’t that clear? Hey Turner, if you’re still confused, here’s a rule they teach in S.A.F.E.R. that’s a good one to follow: “Consent [is] an enthusiastic yes by someone who is able to consent,” said Kohn-Brown. “Intoxication, age, relationships, and coercion are all things that may limit people’s ability to consent.”
Rasmussen later retracted her statement, blaming the “overzealous nature of social media” for “twisting” her words. “I know that Brock Turner was tried and rightfully convicted of sexual assault,” said Rasmussen. So much for sticking to her guns.
A Society Bred Upon Victim Blaming
There are many reasons why rape is the most underreported crime, and one of those reasons is the inevitable shaming that comes along with it.
It may not seem evident in this case, but there is plenty of victim blaming to choose from. Typically, victim blaming takes the form of shaming the appearance of the victim. “If she dresses like a sl*t, she’ll be treated like one.” “That mini skirt is just begging to be ripped off.” “She’s asking for it.” If Doe had been wearing a short skirt and a tank top instead of a plain, beige cardigan, she likely would have faced more of these comments. Even in her sweater, knee-high boots, and modest dress, Turner called Doe promiscuous. Rasmussen danced around the idea, implying that she placed some of the blame on Doe with her comment, “I am not blaming her directly for this… but…”
Moreover, Turner’s emphasis on the corruption that coincides with drinking goes further to say that he truly believes that the real problem isn’t the rape, here, it’s the alcohol. Under this ideal, it’s very possible that Turner blames Doe for drinking too much to be able to handle herself. And after all, boys will be boys, right?
Doe is as much responsible for the crime against her as everyone else in the world is: not at all. As Doe said, Turner is the cause, and “I am the effect… You knocked down both our towers, I collapsed at the same time you did. If you think I was spared, came out unscathed, that today I ride off into sunset while you suffer the greatest blow, you are mistaken. Nobody wins. We have all been devastated. Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
In a case like this, it is easy to succumb to the undeniable reality that it really is a cruel world out there. We have unjust judges, absurd legal dissimilarities, ignorance upon ignorance upon ignorance, and blaming victims who deserve nothing but our utmost respect. Fortunately, we also have survivors like Doe, who leave us pearls of wisdom that restore our faith in humanity. Penned Doe, “And finally, to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting, I believe [in] you. As the author Anne Lamott once wrote, ‘Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.’ Although I can’t save every boat, I hope that by speaking today, you absorbed a small amount of light, a small knowing that you can’t be silenced, a small satisfaction that justice was served, a small assurance that we are getting somewhere, and a big, big knowing that you are important, unquestionably, you are untouchable, you are beautiful, you are to be valued, respected, undeniably, every minute of every day, you are powerful and nobody can take that away from you. To girls everywhere, I am with you.”