Let There Be Light: The Stanford Sexual Assault Case

By Karan Joshi, Staff Writer, 1L

April marks the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month which is recognized in schools, universities, and communities around the nation. In this day and age, we are bombarded with news coverage of how the U.S Government is striving to achieve world peace in the face of global terrorism, yet the terror suffered by victims of sexual assault, rape, child molestation, and incest continue to be a mere blip on our Government’s radar.

Keeping in step, legislators have developed a sort of laissez-faire attitude in regards to legislation regarding sexual assault, resulting in a criminal justice system that is either unable or unwilling to provide justice to victims, protect society and punish those who commit sexual crimes. Social media has risen to become the most powerful tool for shining a light on sexual assault and giving a voice to the victims, organizations, and the public.

A case which serves as an example of this is the infamous sexual assault case involving Brock Turner, a 21-year old former college student of Stanford University.  In the criminal sexual assault case, People v. Turner (2015), Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault of an intoxicated and unconscious 22-year-old woman in an alleyway next to a trash bin. Turner plead guilty but used the defense of intoxication as a mitigating factor for his act. While the convictions carried a potential sentence of 14 years in prison, prosecutors recommended six. Notwithstanding, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to just six months in county jail where he was released early after serving just three months. Social media erupted in outrage which eventually led to the judge recusing himself from all criminal cases in the future and Gov. Jerry Brown signing legislation to prevent this from happening again. However, this case is only one of many which show why the criminal justice system needs reform in the way it deals with sexual assault cases.

When judges handle cases in this manner it directly bolsters the claim of Women’s Right’s Advocates of a prevalent “rape culture” in our society. While the nation grapples with political conversations, sexual assault awareness is not just a ‘local’ issue but something that has widespread ramifications. In a way, it defines how we treat each other in our society. Here, are some staggering figures that highlight the severity of this sexual assault in America:

  • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience violence from their partners in their lifetimes.
  • 1 in 3 teens experience sexual or physical abuse or threats from a boyfriend or girlfriend in one year.
  • 1 in 5 women are survivors of rape.
  • 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives.
  • 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18.

(Source:  http://www.nomore.org)

Judge Persky’s comments also give strong validation for the claim that the concept of a “rape myth” exists and is pervasive in American society.  Rape myth was first defined in 1980 as “erroneous, stereotypical, prejudicial beliefs about sexual assaults, rapists, and rape victims.” Rape myths are generally blatantly false but are widely believed and thus, destructive to victims of sexual violence in some of the following ways: (1) to deny and justify male aggression against women. They particularly blame the victim for the sexual assault or downplay the impact of the assault. As a consequence, the judicial system gets invaded by preconceived notions when determining innocence or guilt and (2) Rape myths suggest that the stereotypical victim of sexual violence is a bruised and battered young woman.

This is why cases regarding acquaintance rape, drug and alcohol induced rape, and cases where the victim did not report right away are so difficult to prove not only in criminal and civil court but in the court of public opinion because these type of assaults often to not leave bruises. In his decision, Judge Persky justified Turner’s sentence by comparing his crime against other sexual assaults that produce significant injuries upon a victim. Because the victim was an intoxicated or unconscious person who could not resist, he did not have to use force. Therefore it is considered a non-violent offense under California law.  The judge also used the victim’s impact statement against her, reading from it several times and commenting on how “eloquent and poised” she was.

An article in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, The progression of sexual crimes through the criminal justice system explains, “However the central issue in cases of sexual assault is whether both parties consented to the sexual activity or both had the capacity to do so. Thus, physical force resulting in visible physical injury is not always seen. Due to this stereotype, sexually assaulted people who have no physical trauma may be less inclined to report to the authorities or to seek health care.”

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