A Letter to Judge Persky

I don’t know Aaron Persky, the now infamous judge from Santa Clara CA, who gave Brock Turner, a 20-year-old Stanford student, a 6-month jail sentence for raping a 23-year-old woman. I have never met Judge Persky. Palo Alto public defender Gary Goodman, says that ” Judge Persky is a kind, gentle soul — very well considered and bright.” 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. He served as an executive committee member of the Support Network for Battered Women, and he received a state award for civil rights leadership. Judge Persky ran unopposed this week for another  6-year term in the Superior Court.

Given these essential facts, and given Judge Persky’s seemingly clear, respected acumen, how can a man make such a colossal blunder? There is no question about what happened. One day in January 2015, at around 1 a.m., two male Stanford graduate students from Sweden who were riding bicycles spotted Turner, then a 19-year-old freshman, on top of a woman behind a Dumpster outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity house on campus. The graduate students could see that the woman wasn’t moving. When they got off their bikes to intervene, Turner tried to run away. They stopped him and called the police. The victim, a college graduate who was 22, was “completely unresponsive,” according to the authorities. She was taken to the hospital, where she woke up about three hours later.

Earlier in the evening, she’d gone to a party at the fraternity with her sister, a Stanford student. Turner was also there, and they each had several drinks. The victim’s blood-alcohol level was about three times the legal limit when it was tested. At some point during the party, she blacked out, and in the hour or so before she was assaulted, she made incoherent calls to her boyfriend and her sister (who’d left the party), which she couldn’t remember afterward. She also couldn’t remember what happened between her and Turner. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit, and he told the police that though he was drunk, he could “remember everything,” according to the police report, and that he’d “consciously decided to engage in the sexual activity with the victim,” digitally penetrating her and then thrusting against her with his pants on. He also said she “seemed to enjoy” it.

Turner’s father wrote to Judge Persky, asking for leniency:  “[My son’s] life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life. The fact that he now has to register as a sexual offender for the rest of his life forever alters where he can live, visit, work, and how he will be able to interact with people and organizations. What I know as his father is that incarceration is not the appropriate punishment for Brock.”

I suppose some fathers would beg a judge not to incarcerate their guilty sons, that they’ve learned their lessons, that they will behave differently forever after. But the very fact that Mr. Turner claims groping and penetrating an unconscious woman is nothing more than “20 minutes of action” is appalling. Perhaps it gives us more insight than we care to have into Turner family ethics.

A California jury found the former student, 20-year-old Brock Allen Turner, guilty of three counts of sexual assault. Turner faced a maximum of 14 years in state prison. Last Thursday, he was sentenced to six months in county jail and probation. The judge said he feared a longer sentence would have a “severe impact” on Turner, a champion swimmer who once aspired to compete in the Olympics — a point repeatedly brought up during the trial.

I don’t have much to say to Brock Turner or his dad. Another privileged white man has squeaked by the judicial system, avoiding serious time. Father and son have dehumanized the victim, blaming alcohol as the actual culprit. They played the system, which, let’s face it, always has gone easier on white men of privilege.

To Judge Persky, I would say thus: Your honor, as the father of 3 daughters and 2 sons, and grandfather of 2, as a Jew, I find your sentencing to be ethically indefensible. Your cavalier attitude about the pain and suffering the victim has endured as opposed to your deep concern for the “steep price” Turner has paid for his actions is utterly ludicrous. Our tradition mandates that we first and foremost attend to the needs of the victim. It further teaches judges that:  You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality. (Deut 16:19) And yet you have done just that.

You looked at Brock Turner as a fellow Stanford student, an archetype of the California kids from your own student days: blonde, athletic, and rich. And you came to his rescue. You could much more easily relate to him than to the passed out unconscious girl behind the dumpster.

Judge Persky, you insulted the only victim in this case, the unnamed female who was raped and assaulted. In your haste to mitigate the “severe impact,” incarceration would have on the rapist, you looked away from your prime directive: justice.

I tried to discover whether or not you have daughters, Judge Persky. I couldn’t find out, even though I’m a good Google researcher. I wanted to know because I can’t imagine a father of a daughter would find it so easy to minimize the violence done to the victim in this case. So let me say that fathers worry about their daughters every day. We worry that they will be safe, that no idiot man will catcall, or humiliate them. We pray that they will know their limits when out on the town. We pray that if they’ve had too much to drink that some slimy drunk won’t grab them and take advantage of their state. I’m the father of 3 grown women, 3 responsible, bright and fun women. And I will worry about them every day of my life. I will worry less about my sons because I know that this kind of crime is not in their makeup. But I will reassert that like the 2 Swedes who rescued the victim and subdued the rapist until police came, as mensches who witness such behavior they are obligated to do something.

When a judge like you rules to shield a man of privilege who thinks being drunk gives him carte blanche to rape, handle, finger, grope or kiss women because we live in a culture of booze and drugs and sex, then I worry more. You don’t give permission. But you don’t slam the gavel down and throw Turner behind bars for a few years anyway. Your bio claims you worked with women who were victims of domestic abuse. How does your knowledge base from that world not lead you to do justly?

Judge Persky, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do here. Can you apologize for a miscarriage of justice? Can you call a mistrial? You were just ushered into another term on the Superior Court. Would it not be a time to step down, to acknowledge that you made a terrible error?

What you do is your call; yours and the voters of Santa Clara. As a rabbi, as a father and grandfather, as a naïve believer in the possibility of justice in this nation, Judge Persky, it is time for your atonement. Anything less besmirches the damaged life of this victim and the millions of women who have suffered the indifference and open ridicule of the American justice system on every level.

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