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Renée Graham

What the Stanford rape case teaches us about justice

Students held up a sign about rape at Stanford University on Sept. 16, 2015. Tessa Ormenyi via AP

Even when a sexual assault assailant is convicted, justice can be elusive for survivors of rape.

That’s the revolting lesson learned after Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault, received a measly six-month sentence in a California county jail. He could have spent a maximum 14 years in prison; prosecutors asked for six. Instead, he’ll likely serve half of his sentence and be out of jail before this nation elects its next president.

Despite the severity of Turner’s crimes, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky decided prison “would have a severe impact on him,” and declared Turner would not be “a danger to others.” Inexplicably, Persky ignored that Turner’s actions have had a severe impact on the woman he raped and that he’s a proven danger to others. Now the subject of a recall effort, the judge, himself a Stanford graduate, deserves to be bounced from the bench.

When a jury of four women and eight men convicted Turner on all counts in March, it seemed as if, for once, the hard facts of the case outweighed the easy sympathies afforded young men born white and privileged. Yet the sentencing phase became a pity party for a convicted rapist. According to his father, Turner, 20, is no longer “his happy go lucky self with that easygoing personality and welcoming smile.” His life “will never be the one he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve.” All this, Turner’s father said, for “20 minutes of action.”


What Turner lost — he also received three years of probation and must register as a sex offender — is nothing compared to what he stole from the unconscious young woman he raped outside a fraternity house on the Stanford campus in January 2015. As the woman, who has remained anonymous, elegiacally wrote in a now-widely circulated letter read in court, she has been robbed of her “independence, natural joy, gentleness.” She calls Turner’s sentence “a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of the assaults.”


It takes a lot of fortitude for rape victims to report sex crimes committed against them. Often, they are branded liars or gold diggers mining for a big payday. In court, if it gets that far, female rape victims are vilified as promiscuous, vindictive, or drunk. Even sartorial choices on the night of an attack become suspect, as if a certain skirt or blouse is tantamount to consent.

Another example of this disgusting response became public this week. In court documents connected to a civil suit filed against Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the school alleges that a student, raped in Puerto Rico during a study abroad program in 2012, is partially responsible because she had been drinking, then followed a stranger onto a rooftop. The woman’s suit claims the college failed to provide students with a safe environment.

With sickening regularity in cases of rape, it is the woman who must answer for her decisions. Yet Turner who, like his accuser, admits to drinking on the night of the assault, is allowed excuses for his choices. In a letter to the court, his maternal grandparents even lamented, “Brock is the only person being held accountable for the actions of other irresponsible adults.”

In her closing argument during the trial, prosecutor Alaleh Kianerci said, “Turner may not look like a rapist, but he is the . . . face of campus sexual assault.”


A rapist. That’s what the jurors saw, and they delivered justice. On the contrary, the judge, like other Turner apologists, saw not a felon, but a young man to be shielded from the tough punishment his conviction warranted.

This is a judicial atrocity. For Turner’s brave accuser — and countless other survivors of sexual assault — this is justice undone.

Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.