Judge Aaron Persky says he has no regrets.
The Northern California judge says he would handle the sexual assault case of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner the same way today as he did almost two years ago, though it’s the reason he is the target of a June 5 recall election and has become the self-described “most hated man on the internet.”
In a lengthy interview with The Associated Press, the wiry 56-year-old former college lacrosse player argued the Santa Clara County recall effort is “fundamentally unfair” because it boils down a thick criminal case to Twitter hashtags. He gets a little teary-eyed when he talks about being turned into a one-dimensional caricature as the judge who condones rape.
“I expected some negative reaction,” Persky said. “But not this.”
The recall effort comes amid the growing influence of the #MeToo movement, and observers say it will serve as a bellwether of the movement’s influence on national politics.
Persky says he has resisted friends’ call to quit and relieve the mounting pressure on his wife and two young sons because judicial independence is at stake. He is fighting the effort, he says, because recalling judges over unpopular rulings threatens the integrity of the judiciary.
The California judge who sentenced a Stanford University student in a high-profile sexual assault case is fighting a recall vote. Critics say Judge Aaron Persky treated former swimmer Brock Turner and his crime too lightly. (May 18)
“To get justice from a judge, they need someone who follows the rules. The basic rule is the rule of law,” he said. “The problem with this recall is it will pressure judges to follow the rule of public opinion as opposed to the rule of law.”
On June 2, 2016, Persky followed the county probation department’s recommendation when he sentenced Turner to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman who came to be known as Emily Doe. Turner is also required to register for life as a sex offender.
Turner was arrested after two graduate students from Sweden yelled at him as he lay atop the motionless victim, whose dress was hiked above her waist, her underwear lying nearby. They tackled him when he tried to run and held him down until police arrived.
In court, the victim read an emotional statement recounting the assault, her treatment by investigators and the ordeal of facing questions about her sexual activity and drinking habits. It quickly went viral.
“Instead of taking time to heal, I was taking time to recall the night in excruciating detail, in order to prepare for the attorney’s questions that would be invasive, aggressive and designed to steer me off course, to contradict myself, my sister, phrased in ways to manipulate my answers,” she wrote. “This was a game of strategy, as if I could be tricked out of my own worth.”
Persky declined to discuss the victim’s letter or other details of the case because it’s on appeal. Generally, he said California law requires him to take into account the victim’s statement.
Turner is appealing his jury conviction, arguing he didn’t get a fair trial because character witnesses were barred from testifying about his honesty, scholastic success and his swimming career. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 28 in San Jose.
Persky also declined to elaborate on his reasoning for Turner’s sentence, which was widely criticized as too lenient.
Stanford University law school professor Michele Dauber announced the creation of the recall campaign. Dauber is a friend of the victim’s and was in the courtroom for Turner’s sentencing. She’s an outspoken on-campus activist who helped push through more stringent sexual harassment and abuse reporting and investigation policies.
Dauber also is an adept Democratic fundraiser who has organized a well-financed recall campaign with glossy mailers juxtaposing photos of Persky with President Donald Trump and Turner’s mug shot, garnering national support.
Dauber (Photo: AP)
“We feel it’s important to respond strongly with a message of accountability for elected officials like Judge Persky who do not take sex crimes and violence against women seriously,” Dauber said. “Many eyes around the country are going to be on Santa Clara County as a model for how to respond to bias against women in the legal system.”
Dauber said Persky’s position takes a “dim view of judicial integrity” and that she has faith judges will continue to exercise their independence regardless of the outcome.
The recall campaign has drawn outsize attention and money for a local race: Proponents have raised about $1.2 million, and the judge about half that much.
“Recall Persky” signs dot the immaculate lawns of multimillion-dollar homes in Persky’s Silicon Valley neighborhood, where the judge removed the numbers from the front of his house after a popular website published his address. Some former friends have told him they’re voting for his recall.
Persky grew up in an upper-middle-class home in San Francisco’s leafy Lake Street neighborhood, the middle son of a psychiatrist father and a mother who taught French. He spent the first two years of high school at an exclusive East Coast boarding school before finishing closer to home at The Branson School in Marin County.
He earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in international relations at Stanford, then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley law school and took a job with the large law firm Morrison & Forrester, which sent him to Tokyo to work with Japanese clients. He took to the culture and took a year’s leave to learn Japanese.
In 1997, the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office hired him as a prosecutor to handle cases ranging from drunken driving to sexually violent predators. Gov. Gray Davis appointed Persky to the bench a month before voters recalled Davis from office in October 2003 amid frustration over a poor economy and other problems in the state.
A number of law school professors and retired judges have sided with Persky, including Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who called Turner’s sentence too lenient but “lawful.” Rosen agreed with Perksy that the recall threatens judges’ willingness to make correct but unpopular rulings.
“This value is more important than any outcome in any individual case,” he said.