The California judge in the Brock Turner sexual assault trial did not abuse his authority or show bias when he sentenced the former Stanford University student to six months in jail, an independent commission concluded.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky’s sentence, handed down on June 2, was widely criticized as too lenient, drawing significant public outcry and media coverage. The brevity of the sentence triggered outrage against Persky and conversation about how the justice system treats sexual assault survivors.
The Commission on Judicial Performance, an independent state agency, reviewed thousands of complaints to determine if Persky’s conduct amounted to judicial misconduct meriting sanctions. The investigation did not have the power to reverse or otherwise alter the sentence.
“The commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged in judicial misconduct warranting discipline,” the commission said.
“Accordingly, the participating commission members voted unanimously to close, without discipline, its preliminary investigation of the complaints against the judge regarding his sentencing decision in the Turner case.”
The complaints against Persky focused on five themes, the commission said:
• Persky abused his authority and displayed bias in his sentencing.
• The sentence was unlawful.
• Persky’s sentence displayed gender bias and failed to take sexual assault of women seriously.
• Persky exhibited racial and/or socioeconomic bias because a nonwhite or less privileged defendant would have received a harsher sentence.
• The judge’s history as a student athlete at Stanford University caused him to be biased in favor of Turner and he should have disclosed his Stanford affiliation.
However, the commission concluded the sentence was within the parameters set by law. Additionally, Persky followed the recommendation of the probation report and performed a balancing assessment of accounts from the victim and the defendant, the commission said.
Persky read the assessment aloud at the sentencing hearing. He noted that Turner’s age, 18 at the time of the assault, and lack of criminal record weighed in favor of probation over prison. The panel agreed, pointing out that under state law a judge is required to consider such factors when determining if prison or probation is appropriate.
Persky was criticized for suggesting that Turner’s level of intoxication served as a mitigating factor. The commission said that question had greater bearing on the sentence itself and would be better addressed on appeal. Otherwise, Persky’s reliance on that factor did not rise to the level of judicial misconduct because it did not clearly show abuse of authority or disregard of the law or for fundamental human rights.
Members of the public pointed to sentencing outcomes in other cases Persky handled as evidence of bias. The commission said those cases did not support a finding of bias, either because Persky was not involved in the sentencing, or because the outcome came from a plea deal or the probation department’s recommendation.
Finally, the commission said Persky’s association with Stanford University was insufficient to require disclosure or disqualification.
Turner was released in September after serving three months under a state law intended to reduce overcrowding. He also must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The case led to a new state law that makes prison time mandatory in some sexual assaults and a ban on hard alcohol on Stanford’s campus.
A target of much of the outrage, Persky recused himself from a child pornography case and stepped down from the criminal court. A campaign to recall him continues.