In September 2016, Brock Turner was released from jail after serving 3 months of his 6 month sentence for “sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object,” and “sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object,” in 2015. People were in an uproar, rightfully so, at this despicable act of leniency which made a mockery of our justice system. Petitions were being signed to recall the judge. The founder of linked-in, Reid Hoffman (Stanford graduate) donated $25,000 to crowdpac campaign in order to aid with the recall. The prosecutors in the case had initially pressed for a six year prison sentence, for a crime (rape) which has a minimum of 2 years imprisonment (the official rape charges were dropped, which was why Brock was only sentenced to 6 months). Brock leaving after 92 days was a corruption of the system.
One of my purposes for this post is to elaborate on the following idea:
Justice, both individually and culturally, is irrevocably intermixed and colored by identity and social status. This is why social change happens painfully slow over generations. It is why we have to keep reminding ourselves of unjust cases like this one to prevent a degradation of the law.
If you want to learn the gritty details and perspectives of the case there are thousands of blogs and articles you can find online. But the two “must-reads,” are the letter of the defendant’s father to the judge (read this first) and the letter of the victim to the judge/read to the defendant. Spring boarding from these two perspectives I want to answer four questions:
Who was Brock Turner?
Who was “Emily Doe” (the victim)?
How and why did the rape occur?
Why was the punishment so lenient/who was the judge?
I want the reader to keep in mind during my analysis that I believe Brock’s act was monstrous and not adequately punished. But if we’re going to understand why the judge sentenced him so lightly and move in the direction of positive reform, we have to delve into a painfully sympathetic perspective to fully comprehend the bastardization of justice.
Brock Turner was an awkward, drug-using (LSD, ecstasy), over-achieving All-American swimmer. Based on his father’s letter to the judge, it’s clear that Brock was enamored by his parents and that his father was narrow and dumb. What’s sickening about the letter is the father’s complete neglect of the victim. It’s all my poor son, my poor son…he’s losing his happy-go-lucky personality, his welcoming smile. He was so talented, hard-working, and humble. Now he will never be the same again…
The most horrifying line:
His life will never be the one 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 emotional destruction of Emily was ignored. The shattering tragedy imposed on her was called 20 minutes of action.
It is obvious from the father’s letter that a parent rarely has a reasonable and clear perspective of their child. It is obvious that a desperate love and fear of loss will often trump the lives and decencies of strangers. A parent is usually ready to forgive the heinous crime of their child and look forward.
Which makes me ask: can a person be defined by a single action? Can a whole lifetime be tainted by 20 minutes of unspeakable stupidity and cruelty, especially when alcohol or drugs are involved? When looking at yourself, the answer must be no. Our pasts, with all our mistakes, are set in stone and we must define ourselves with the next action we take. This is how the judge looked at Brock. The judge believed that Brock was being punished/”poisoned enough” with all the media backlash and having to register as a lifetime sex offender. Did he really need more than 6 months of jail time on top of that? Would that make him a better person? Would the severity of a long prison sentence negatively impact his moral restoration? But the justice system is not our caring parent. The law must look at our actions in a crime as direct and persistent connections to who we are. The law must look at what we’ve done as irrevocable. If it doesn’t, the law breaks down.
Emily Doe’s letter to her attacker is a work of art. Her intelligence and emotional depth sizzles between the words. It reminds me how much injustice can act as a flaming fuel for expression. Her paragraphs pulse with the power of someone who has been betrayed by the courtroom and refuses to back down. She hits the perfect balance of describing her personal struggles with the aggravating details of how the case progressed. She rightfully hits on the contemptible avoidance tactics of the defendants and their unscrupulous focus on the surrounding culture of drinking and promiscuity.
Reading between the lines, I believe Emily is a vibrant, passionate, empathetic, and engaging woman: “…there’s a dumb party ten minutes from my house. I would go, dance like a fool, and embarrass my younger sister. On the way there, I joked about what undergrad guys would have braces. My sister teased me for wearing a beige cardigan to a frat party like a librarian.”
Now let’s turn back to Brock. I’ve personally known two people who have attended Stanford University and transferred after their first year due to a toxic and hazardous social environment. The school is so academically and athletically competitive that it attracts people who haven’t developed socially. In Brock’s father’s letter he states, “When Brock was home Christmas break, he broke down and told us how much he was struggling to fit in socially and the fact that he did not like being so far from home.” Keep in mind that Brock had the highest GPA of the freshmen on the swim team (nerd) and was from the Midwest (relative foreigner). Now, compound all of these factors with the toxic frat environment:
Let’s get hammered and get laid!
Here’s the scene: wild frat house, semester just started, high-testosterone-level-
Why did Brock decide to violate her while she was unconscious? Besides the animal lust and drunken haze, what other cultural and social factors were at work? More importantly, how can we prevent young men from making such a depraved decision in the future?
Emily was right in her letter to attack the defense’s focus on the culture of drinking and promiscuity. Excess drinking and sleeping with strangers are not the issues, it’s the lack of consent.
I believe that issues between the sexes will persist long after issues between races have been resolved. Because the steps we have to take in order to emphasize consent sometimes conflicts with our animal natures.
We have to tell young men that hooking up with numerous, stranger women does not make you a man, make you cool, make you fit in, or make you attractive (despite our evolutionary tendency and desire to pass on the seed.) What makes you a man is forming a deep, lasting relationship with a woman. What makes you a man is having the confidence to ask for consent and if you can’t find out, to forget it. We have to make the idea of penetrating a woman who does not give absolutely clear consent as loathsome as possible.
Women can help this process in their own way, but again, this way can conflict with their animal nature. It’s a fact that some women are highly attracted to dominating and controlling men. It’s a truism that women don’t know what they want. They want a man who is knowing and can care for them. The success of the book, 50 Shades of Grey is an example of the fantasies many women have of rich, powerful, knowledgable men sweeping them off their passive feet and forcing them to submit. This Louis CK video describes the wavering mentality (telling a story about when he was, coincidentally, 20 years old/the same age as Brock):
Of course the video only describes one woman, but I think many women expect guys to read their subtle signals and act forcefully. But men are not nearly as emotionally savy or sensitive as women. Most of us are hungry, fumbling idiots. So the more independent and confident women become (which has been happening and I believe will continue to happen)…being clear about what they want and communicating it, the better the relations between the sexes will be. Keep in mind that I am not at all implying that Emily Doe wasn’t being independent or confident enough the night of the party (she mistakenly got black out drunk and black out drunk girls shouldn’t be expected to communicate clearly or give consent). In fact, I believe she is more confident and independent than the average woman. And I’m not saying that more independence and confidence could have prevented Brock’s attack the night of the crime. I’m just saying that if Brock grew up in a culture with less “waitresses-attracted-to-guys-
So why did the judge let Brock off the hook?
Judge Aaron Persky is a 53 year old white, male democrat who graduated from Stanford. While at Stanford he was the captain of the club lacrosse team. There’s no doubt that he unconsciously empathized with Brock as another male athlete with good grades from the same school. And democrats have a history of viewing the law as flexible, soft, and malleable. They also lean towards humanitarianism and rehabilitation rather than incarceration and punishment. This world view is shown via the judge’s focus on Turner being a “first time offender,” on Turner “showing remorse,” and the fact that imprisonment would have a “severe impact on the defendant’s life.”
When the judge and defendant share a similar identity, then the sense of justice spreads out beyond the person himself in this instance and the particulars of the case. Justice expands broadly enough to include the defendants swimming records in the past and his future, tainted life as a sex offender. (How will Brock ever find a woman who can love him when the details of his case are eternalized on the Internet?) It minimizes the slice of his action for the totality of his life…which is connected to the judge’s life.
The reader may be wondering: why doesn’t Aaron’s expanding, democratic, humanitarian sense of justice include Emily’s pain and suffering? Because the act which caused the pain already happened and is fading with time, Emily is different from the judge, and Aaron doesn’t see how punishing Brock more severely would further alleviate Emily’s pain.
The scenario reminds me of the death penalty debate. In the nonfiction book, Green Fields, by Bob Cowser an 8 year old girl named Cary Ann Medlin is raped and stabbed to death by a 23 year old man on LCD named Robert Coe. Coe is quickly arrested, confesses, pleads insanity, but is sentenced to death. He remained on death row for over two decades while his sentence was appealed, overturned, reinstated, and briefly stayed, until he was executed on April 19, 2000, the first execution performed in Tennessee in 40 years.
Cowser convincingly and subtly argues for the injustice of Coe’s execution. Cowser was a schoolmate of the victim, grew up in the same backwoods town as Coe, and witnessed the poverty and ignorance of the environment. He researched Coe’s childhood abuse. He empathized with Coe. He described the militant, revenge-fueled anger of Cary Ann Medlin’s family and neighbors. But what did killing Coe rather than life in prison accomplish? It satisfied revenge. That’s it.
A motivation for this post is that I’ve read numerous articles lashing out against Brock’s early release written by women who I believe have the same flexible, soft, and democratic sense of justice as Judge Aaron Pesky. They do not support the death penalty. They believe in rehabilitation, caring about the needy, and giving people a second chance.
Yet they don’t want Brock to rehabilitate or get a second chance. They don’t care if his life is already ruined by this case. Their sense of justice is rigid and hard. They know what it’s like to be a woman harassed by a man. They know Brock is a monster. They want revenge. They want more than 3 months in jail.
Let me reiterate: I’M IN THE SAME, FRUSTRATED BOAT. I believe Brock should have been punished more severely.
But these same women posting against the injustice did not write anything when Eric Gardner was strangled by a police officer (Labron James wore a shirt protesting against it:)
They did not write anything when French journalists were murdered by Muslim extremists (last time I saw Louis CK live he wore a Charlie Hedbo t-shirt):
And there’s nothing wrong with any of these silences! Injustices occur everywhere everyday.
My point is that we become outraged and our sense of justice becomes hard and rigid when someone with a similar identity or social status becomes victimized. On the flip side, our sense of justice becomes softer when it’s someone from a similar background being accused..and we’re the judge.
The emotional, empathizing mechanism impelling women to desire revenge and a harsher punishment for Brock, because he hurt a person similar to themselves, is the same mechanism which caused Judge Persky to be more lenient, judging someone similar to himself.
Most people know that their measuring stick for analyzing justice is biased when the subject is someone with a similar background. But I believe it’s important to realize that our compasses for discovering injustice and our barometers concerning our degree of involvement are influenced too.
Which is why, as a young man who was also an awkward, over-achieving, athlete who got hammered at frat parties and hit on girls, I decided to write about something that most of these men (who I believe are my audience) aren’t thinking about. If one of them reads this and shifts slightly in the direction of rape empathy and a recognition of conscious consent in their relationships with women, then my goal for this post will have been accomplished.