If Stanford University had handled Brock Turner’s case as a matter of internal discipline, the rest of the world might never have known what he did.
Turner was found guilty in March on three sexual assault charges. On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail. The Internet exploded in outrage at how lenient the sentence was — especially in the face of an extraordinary statement, published last weekend by BuzzFeed, in which the victim detailed the physical and emotional trauma that Turner had inflicted on her. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield read the 12-page statement on the air in its entirety. More than 600,000 people have signed a petition seeking Persky’s removal.
Yet amid that uproar, there’s a deeper lesson that’s getting lost. Turner’s conviction illustrates why bringing police and the courts into campus sexual assault cases serves the cause of justice — something that shouldn’t be left to unaccountable, confidential administrative panels.
Turner’s not just some guy who left an elite university under a mysterious cloud. He’s now a convicted criminal.
The reason people across the country know his name, and the reason he’ll have to answer for his offense in perpetuity, is that law enforcement was involved with the case from the start. Turner’s victim wasn’t affiliated with Stanford but did attend a frat party there with her sister. She was unconscious behind a dumpster, with Turner on top of her, when two graduate students bicycled by and stopped to investigate. When Turner fled, they stopped him — and they called the cops.
Campus sexual assault allegations generally go before internal university panels, which typically handle too few cases to develop significant investigative expertise, have an institutional incentive to keep everything hush-hush, and often have little to go on besides two conflicting accounts of events that occurred weeks or months before. Professional detectives and prosecutors have more experience in obtaining witness testimony and other evidence. Courts weigh facts under standardized procedures that give prosecutors tremendous discretion but still protect the rights of the accused.
The legal system, to be sure, is adversarial and often coarse. In her statement, Turner’s victim detailed the insulting questions raised by Turner’s lawyer. She wrote, “I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.” A rape victim who sued Worcester Polytechnic Institute for negligence has made similar complaints, as the Globe reported this past week.
Long before the Turner verdict, there was evidence that legal authorities in college towns go easy on top athletes. Yet internal proceedings can be tilted against victims, too. The lack of transparency just makes it harder to know when that happens.
Rather than demanding that schools find better ways of assessing guilt, the Obama administration has been pushing them to apply a less stringent standard of evidence. This is worrisome because some accusations really do fall apart upon serious examination.
A now-infamous story in Rolling Stone featured a student who said she was gang-raped at the University of Virginia. It’s now clear, because of subsequent reporting from The Washington Post, that the alleged incident never happened. Last year, a former Amherst College student who was expelled under suspicion of sexual assault sued the school after obtaining text messages that appeared to vindicate him. (As of this writing, the Amherst suit is still under litigation.)
More formal legal proceedings create an educational opportunity. How might universities teach men not to commit rape, as campus advocates fervently urge? The news coverage of Turner’s court case has all but generated the course syllabus — the suffering of his victim, the benighted attitudes of his enablers, the potential for a single nonconsensual sexual encounter to ruin multiple lives. Turner is lucky not to be facing a longer jail sentence, but his legal expenses, his lost employment and educational opportunities, and his pariah status among everyone with access to Google have a deterrent value of their own.
Turner’s case also shows how the justice system benefits from external scrutiny. When cases are formally tried, outside observers can decide whether the cops and the courts are doing their job or not.
Hence the recall petition, and the angry comparisons of Turner’s sentence with the fates of less privileged defendants. Especially as states reconsider harsh sentencing requirements and ponder the impact of race and class in criminal justice, it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether a blond-haired, blue-eyed Stanford swimmer should be sentenced more harshly — or, alternatively, whether black and Latino offenders who receive harsher punishments deserve more mercy.
Good policy decisions are easier to make when the facts are out in the open. And campuses are safer when the misdeeds of a criminal like Brock Turner are known to the public, not locked up a university’s secret file cabinet.