Too lenient is how critics condemned the six-month jail sentence for Brock Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer convicted of three felonies for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
His leaving jail Friday after serving three months has only deepened perceptions of injustice in a case that has generated controversy and action on numerous fronts: a campaign to recall the judge, who will no longer hear criminal cases; approved legislation in California to make prison time mandatory in some sexual assaults; and a ban on hard alcohol on Stanford’s campus.
To those who study and work in the criminal justice system, Turner’s sentence came as little surprise.
Little to no time in jail or prison is common among college athletes convicted of first-time sexual offenses — if they are charged at all, according to judges, prosecutors, academics and criminologists who spoke with CNN.
As with Turner, their age, clean record and community support — athletic privilege by another name — tend to weigh heavily in their favor. The athlete was 19 at the time of the assault.
Studies have attempted to prove this claim with little empirical satisfaction. One frequently cited study found that athletes, college and professional, are significantly less likely to be convicted than the general population. It was published in Sociology of Sport Journal in 1997, based on the analysis of 217 criminal complaints. Since then, there has been no meaningful, long-term research on the topic.
Former Philadelphia prosecutor Jennifer Long, chief executive officer of AEquitas: The Prosecutors’ Resource on Violence Against Women, said she has no reason to believe much has changed, especially in cases of one person’s word against another.
“More often than not in these cases, you see punishments that are way lower than the conduct seems to require,” Long said.
“As stunning as the Stanford outcome was, it was not uncommon. Far too often we look at perpetrators in a less blameworthy way and minimize what happened to the victim.”
A ‘negotiated’ outcome
Outcomes are hard to quantify because there’s no national database of college athletes accused, charged or convicted of sexual offenses.
Through news reports and public records, CNN found 52 cases of NCAA Division I athletes investigated by police for allegations of sexual violence over the past 20 years.
Each case was different, tried under different state laws by different prosecutors and defense lawyers and presided over by different judges, offering a window into the divergent paths seemingly similar accusations can take.
Of those 52 cases, 33 led to criminal charges, resulting in 13 cases of prison or jail time, ranging from 20 years to three months. Eleven cases ended with no time, either through probation or suspended or deferred sentences; 9 ended in acquittals or charges being dropped.
In most of the cases, those involved were acquaintances, friends, former lovers or occasional flings. Usually, it involved a party or social gathering that included alcohol, after which people retreated to a dorm or apartment. Sometimes, encounters turned into he said/she said cases, with a woman claiming she was forced to the ground, a bed or against a wall, and raped as she shouted no, while the man said it was consensual.
More often than not, a case hinged on consent, leading in different directions: the decision not to file charges, a plea deal on reduced charges, trials that ended in acquittals. Occasionally, the school intervened to facilitate a plea deal or defend their star player in public. Sometimes, they didn’t report the incident to police at all.
In one case, former Florida State University wide receiver Greg Dent, a first-time offender, was sentenced to time served and six months’ probation in 2014 for misdemeanor battery. He was acquitted of the top charge, felony sexual battery, for attempting sex with a friend who said he forced himself on her.
Friends since high school, the two went out to a nightclub with friends one night in June 2013, according to a police report. After they returned to Dent’s home and fell asleep in the same bed, the woman told police, she woke up to find Dent trying to force himself on her. She managed to escape, she said. In a videotaped interview with police, Dent acknowledged attempting sex, but said he thought she was interested, based on their flirtatious relationship.
Dent’s lawyer, Nathan Prince, told CNN he asked the jury to convict his client of the misdemeanor charge to hedge against the chance of a conviction that could lead to prison time and sex offender designation. During the trial, Prince introduced evidence showing that the woman maintained contact with Dent after the encounter, baking him cupcakes and sending him text messages, in an attempt to undermine her claim that she was scared of him.
The woman acknowledged the interactions in her testimony, but said it did not change what he did that night.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is my rapist,’ I’m thinking this is someone I’ve known for years and years and years, and [he] messed up,” she said, according to CNN affiliate WCTV.
Kansas defense lawyer Christopher Joseph has represented numerous University of Kansas athletes. One of them, another first-time offender, Mark Thomas, was arrested on allegations that he fondled a drunk woman while she was passed out in a car. He pleaded no contest to two counts of misdemeanor battery and received six months of probation, according to court records.
“These are very tricky, very fact-specific cases,” Joseph said. “Most (of the time) there is no right answer, no clear-cut answer. It’s a negotiated outcome.”
‘Problematic’ cases, credible witnesses
When evaluating a case, prosecutors typically consider three elements, regardless of the defendant: likelihood of conviction, corroboration of the victim’s claim, and the victim’s credibility, ascertained in a pre-file interview, said Cassia Spohn, director of the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.
Reforms in rape laws nationwide in the late-20th century attempted to reduce the onus on survivors to prove the incident by eliminating the corroboration requirement, along with demonstrable proof that the survivor resisted.
Those elements may no longer exist in statute, but many prosecutors still look for them, Spohn said. Without eyewitnesses or documentary evidence, such as videos or photos, prosecutors may be reluctant to try a case, she said.
That’s what made Turner’s case unique — and ultimately winnable, she said: the two passersby who interrupted the assault, providing crucial testimony against him.
“In some ways, the most remarkable aspect of the Brock Turner case was that he was actually arrested and prosecuted,” Spohn said.
“If you look at cases like his, many of them either don’t result in an arrest, or if the police make an arrest and present it to the district attorney, the district attorney refuses to file charges because of the problematic nature of the case.”
Finding corroborating evidence is also in the interest of the defendant, Joseph said.
“Sometimes, it’s problematic for our case, sometimes it helps, but it’s all information that we can use to make an informed decision about where to go with a case.”
Do we need long sentences?
The seriousness of the offense, and the offender’s prior criminal record tend to weigh most heavily on a sentence. Beyond those factors, depending on the state, judges have considerable discretion, applying their own biases to additional pieces of information, including trial testimony, police reports, a probation department’s recommendation, letters from supporters of the victim and the defendant.
“Sentencing is the most difficult job a judge has because even though we’re given guidelines for how to go about it, it’s still very, very subjective,” said retired Santa Clara County Judge LaDoris Cordell, who served on the same circuit in California that heard Turner’s case.
“We are told that every person that comes before us is to be treated as an individual, so there’s tremendous emphasis on the person in front of you.”
The maximum sentence Turner faced for the January 2015 assault was 10 years. Prosecutors asked for six. The head of the campaign to recall Judge Aaron Persky over the sentence believes two would be have been appropriate. The judge followed a probation officer’s recommendation.
Had Turner apologized to her directly for violating her, the victim said she could have accepted a sentence of probation. But in the absence of remorse, he did not deserve probation, she said.
“As this is a first offense, I can see where leniency would beckon,” the woman said at his sentencing, taking a page from the California Penal Code.
On the other hand, “We cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly. We should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.”
Persky, however, felt Turner had showed “genuine” remorse through an apology in open court, a factor that weighed in his favor, among others.
From the bench at Turner’s sentencing, Persky went through the aggravating and mitigating factors judges consider in granting probation instead of incarceration on felony offenses.
In Turner’s favor was his lack of criminal record, his willingness to comply with probation and Persky’s belief that he would not be a danger to others.
The letters from family and friends helped, too, Persky said, serving as character references. They knew him as humble, hard-working, gracious, thoughtful, charming, an AP student, a talented swimmer who loved to cook. “Brock’s guac” was famous among classmates.
Both Persky and the survivor said alcohol was a factor, not an excuse. While she mocked Turner for blaming the incident on alcohol and the “campus drinking culture,” Persky agreed with the probation officer who said alcohol mitigated Turner’s culpability.
And, there was the potentially “severe impact” that state prison could have on someone his age, and the “adverse collateral consequences on the defendant’s life resulting from the felony conviction,” according to a transcript of the hearing.
It may sound laughable, but it’s a question judges face all the time: Will justice be served with a long sentence in state prison, a far harsher environment than county jail?
The purpose of treatment
What some would call a light sentence others may see as a second chance to avoid branding a young person a criminal, with the attendant restrictions on freedom and access to jobs, education, housing and the internet, for the rest of his or her life.
Within that calculus, justice for survivors is not the only goal judges must satisfy. Judges must consider what’s best for society, taxpayers and the offender’s long-term prospects, if the offender is to return to society one day as a law-abiding citizen, said Michael Vitiello, distinguished professor of law at University of the Pacific in Sacramento, California.
“A victim may think a punishment is too low because it doesn’t fully compensate a person’s sense of loss, but if we don’t need these long sentences for the protection of society, should we pay for that person’s long sentence?” he said.
Of course, some offenders deserve prison, he said. The key is being judicious in deciding who goes there.
To some prosecutors, getting a rapist into sex offender treatment and on the registry produces a better result than a lengthy prison sentence. Though treatment is intended to be therapeutic and rehabilitative, it comes with a long list of restrictions that can alter one’s life.
“People often think about treatment and punishment as a zero sum game, that if you’re providing treatment to someone you are not punishing them, and that’s not the case,” said Jason Rydberg, assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell’s School of Criminology and Justice Studies.
Research shows that offenders who go through treatment demonstrate better outcomes than those who don’t, including a lower likelihood of reoffending, said Rydberg, whose research includes sex offender treatment and management and prisoner reentry.
“The purpose of treatment is get them to stop thinking like they do and get them to adopt pro-social thinking,” he said.
“The research is pretty clear that correctional interventions designed to enhance punishment in general only make offenders worse,” he said, “because they don’t address the underlying condition.”
Of course, this is of little comfort to survivors of sexual violence, whose trauma will outlast any period of incarceration or probation.
Such is the inherent tension of the justice system. Many believe, though, survivors of sexual violence shoulder more of this burden than other crime victims.
A ‘safe’ target for outrage
Turner may not be the face that comes to mind when you think of a sex offender, but that’s another way he undermined the narrative of sexual assault cases.
As a white, seemingly unassuming freshman swimmer from the Midwest, he challenged the image of what a sexual predator could look like, said Kristy L. McCray, assistant professor of Health and Sport Sciences at Otterbein University.
“It was hard for society to embrace this Midwestern, white, blonde privileged young man doing this crime,” she said, “but because we had witnesses it became believable.”
She’s glad those two men were there to intervene, and that Turner’s case caught people’s attention. But she worries people may be left with the impression that it’s never enough to take a survivor at his or her word, that witnesses are essential.
Their testimony eliminated questions of consent and “credibility issues” that often complicate sexual assault allegations, said Kathy Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.
With all the puzzle pieces in place — the eyewitnesses, the woman’s harrowing account, the enabling father’s letter, the judge, a Stanford alum, and sentence — Turner became a “safe, palatable” target for society’s collective outrage, compared to the vast majority of cases that aren’t so cut and dry, Redmond said.
“The fact that he was convicted was huge. The fact that he’s been labeled a sex offender was huge. But people don’t get that because they’re not paying attention most of the time.”