He graduated from Stanford. He once coached men’s lacrosse. He’s spent much of his career prosecuting sex crimes. And he’s touted himself as a defender of battered women.
But the world knows Aaron Persky as the California judge who sentenced a Stanford athlete to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious 23-year-old woman behind a dumpster.
“A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others,” Persky said when handing down the sentence last week to Brock Turner, who was convicted of three counts of felony sexual assault.
The decision has ignited a heated debate on women’s rights, parenting and the legal system’s treatment of white, middle-class men.
At the center of it all is Persky.
The man behind the sentence
Before this case, Persky’s 13 years on the bench had been without controversy. The California Commission on Judicial Performance shows no record of complaints against Persky. On paper, the judge seemed likely to take a hard line when it came to sentencing.
He served as an executive committee member of the Support Network for Battered Women, and he received a state award for civil rights leadership.
In Persky’s own words, he has worked “to keep the most dangerous sex offenders in custody in mental hospitals.”
But Persky didn’t give Turner, a 20-year-old star swimmer at Stanford, the six-year sentence prosecutors wanted. Instead, he sentenced him to six months in jail and three years’ probation. He has to register for life as a sex offender. Under California law, that means he’ll spend three months in custody after receiving credit for good conduct. He is scheduled for release on September 2.
During the sentencing hearing, Persky heard the victim read a 12-page letter in which she explained in excruciating detail how that night traumatized her for life.
“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice,” she said.
The judge also heard from Dan Turner, the defendant’s father, who wrote that a long sentence would be “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 years of life.” (In a statement Tuesday, Dan Turner said his words were misinterpreted: “I was not referring to sexual activity by the word ‘action.'”)
In rendering his decision about what would be a fair punishment, Persky said he took Turner’s age and his lack of criminal history into account.
Persky has not publicly commented on the fallout over the sentencing. CNN’s requests for comment from his office have not been answered.
Will he stay on the bench?
More than 650,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for Persky’s ouster, and some people at Stanford, his alma mater, want him removed from the bench.
“The judge had to bend over backwards to accommodate this young man’s request for a probation,” said Stanford professor Michele Dauber, who has started a Facebook page advocating to recall the judge.
Persky won his seat Tuesday in the California primary. He ran unopposed.
The Change.org petition may have hundreds of thousands of signatures, but it’s unlikely to have much impact.
The process of recalling a judge in California is complex, and the Change.org petition would in no way affect that, said David LaBahn, the president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys who practiced in California for many years. Only registered voters in Santa Clara County can recall Persky, he said.
Voters have attempted 49 times to recall elected officials, including 27 tries at removing Supreme Court justices, according to the California Secretary of State website.
The county district attorney who represented Turner’s victim tersely criticized Persky’s decision on sentencing, saying, “The punishment does not fit the crime.”
But even Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said Monday that he doesn’t feel that the judgment warrants a recall.
“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,” Rosen said. “I am so pleased that the victim’s powerful and true statements about the devastation of campus sexual assault are being heard across our nation. She has given voice to thousands of sexual assault survivors.”
Palo Alto public defender Gary Goodman told CNN that an attempt to recall Persky is “the last thing” the county wants or needs.
The judge has to weigh “all the factors and rules,” he said. He pointed out that Turner must register as a sex offender.
“Yes, prison is a big deal, but he [Turner] does have punishment. He is on the sex registry, so now if he has kids, he can’t ever drop his kids off at school. He can’t go watch his kids play basketball. He can’t be a teacher. He can’t go to a playground with his kids. He is severely limited for the rest of this life and it’s not just a financial punishment, it’s a lifetime punishment.”
“Judge Persky is a kind, gentle soul — very well considered and bright,” Goodman said. “You can’t send a message to the community with one person. The judge has to be focused solely on that person in his courtroom. The legislature has to take care of the community.”
There can be public outrage, he said, but “you don’t want people recalled because they don’t support your way on the judicial branch. He followed the rules of the law and he came down with a proper decision.”