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Stanford Sexual Assault Sentencing and the Minimization of Sexual Assault


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By John Yannone, a Partner at Price Benowitz LLP

The Brock Turner sexual assault case has engendered quite a bit of outrage.  As it turns out, the reasoning behind public outrage is plentiful.

Brock Turner, 20-year-old Stanford University swimmer, was sentenced to just six months in prison following a guilty finding in legal proceedings over a sexual assault case.  The charges were filed back in January 2015, after Turner was discovered behind a dumpster, on top of the unconscious and only partially-clothed, 23-year-old female victim, whom he sexually assaulted.

Turner could have faced a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, causing critics to question the leniency of the sentence he received. The local prosecutor had been pushing for 6 years out of a possible 10; the 6 month sentence in a whole other ballpark. The debate is so contentious that some have even called for the presiding judge, Santa Clara County Judge and Stanford-alumnus Aaron Persky, to be removed from the bench, particularly following his comment that, “jail would have a severe impact on Turner.”

This controversial sentencing also sheds light on gravely important judicial matters; namely, the minimization of sexual assault cases, and therefore the failure to impartially uphold the law, not to mention substantiation to already existing claims that our country’s most prestigious universities fail to uphold the federal provisions for gender equality in education – including the handling of sexual assault cases – as dictated by Title IX.

Prior to this case making headlines, universities comprising the educational elite, particularly Ivy League institutions – were criticized for allegedly failing to uphold Title IX’s mandates. Columbia University was publicly exposed on numerous counts for its abject failure to handle cases regarding sexual assault and gender equality in accordance with Federal law.

Could this mean that the educational elite in our country is sexist? Do they espouse the mentality of an ‘old boys club’ – inherently minimizing the gravity of sexual assault and the culpability of male offenders, and thereby neglecting to uphold true standards of gender equality? Could an unconscious bias – favoring the lens of a white, privileged, male – be obstructing justice on-campus and even providing for rampant sexual offenses to take place?

The Department of Education’s findings do show that Stanford University’s reports of sexual assault are drastically higher than the median rates of reported sexual assault cases for its counterparts. Among colleges of comparable size, Stanford reports three cases of sexual assault for every one reported case; and among all colleges, Stanford reports a shocking 10 instances of sexual assault for every one case reported.

Our once-presumed respectable educational institutions do not have a good track record when it comes to Title IX due to their failure to adhere to federal guidance and standards dictated by Title IX. In the absence of any oversight, these private institutions have not carried out the intent of the law in a number of instances. The question now becomes whether, victims of sexual assault –who are overwhelmingly women – are being adequately protected or supported equally.

Another concerning element is Turner’s unabashed denial of culpability; he and his father both minimize and deny the extent of his wrongdoing. His father likened the crime to “20 minutes of action” – an insensitive and blatantly disrespectful minimization of the victim’s experience – and also of sexual assault and abuse cases in general.  Turner himself blames everyone but himself.

Furthermore, it could be argued that Judge Persky does not appear to be immune from the bias of the white, privileged male. Some suggest that he used his own personal lens to rationalize Turner’s behavior, adjusting Turner’s sentence accordingly, citing factors such as: his age, academic achievements and scholarship, and his alcohol consumption. Whereas, these considerations are legitimate, the question is whether they were properly applied in this case to justify a sentence below the minimum guideline of two years.

The question is whether this was an injustice perpetrated as a result of the application of advantageous factors so specific to the qualities shared by the white, privileged defendant and judge so as to yield lenient sentencing among those who share in this elitist bias.

What about the underserved populations who are not granted the understanding compassion of a judge who can relate, and particularly women, whose unique experience cannot be properly understood by males with an inherent inclination towards minimizing crimes most often committed towards women? Is this an extension of laws regarding domestic violence and sexual assault which typically fall so short of justice?

Sentencing guidelines were designed to remove the disparity in sentences.  Judges can go below the guidelines, but have to justify their decision addressing specific criteria.  The question raised by the lenient sentence in this case is whether the criteria are adequate to prevent manifest injustice or whether the judge perhaps misapplied the criteria.  Such a sentence is the precise reason for sentencing guidelines in the first place.


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