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Recall of judge in Stanford rape case could threaten judicial independence, lawyers say

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in 2011. Persky has drawn criticism for sentencing former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to only six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. (Jason Doiy/The Recorder)

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky in 2011. Persky has drawn criticism for sentencing former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to only six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. (Jason Doiy/The Recorder)

LOS ANGELES — Although more than 1.2 million people have signed an online petition to oust a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, an election official says no effort has been made to launch an official recall.

Judge Aaron Persky’s decision to sentence former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner to six months in county jail for sexually assaulting a woman has triggered an angry response from those who say the punishment is too light and sets an ominous precedent for campus sexual assaults elsewhere. Many are now demanding that that California Commission for Judicial Performance remove the jurist.

Persky, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, is up for re-election in November.

So far, however, no one has turned in paperwork to challenge Persky’s re-election campaign, according to Anita Torres, spokeswoman for the county’s registrar of voters. Similarly, none has yet submitted the 58,634 signatures needed to trigger a special county recall election next year, she said.

Persky has been challenged by prosecutors, though.

This week, the Santa Clara County District Attorney blocked Persky from hearing another sex crime case. Prosecutors cited Turner’s sentencing as well as the judge’s decision to dismiss an unrelated theft case just as it was about to go to a jury.

“We are disappointed and puzzled at Judge Persky’s unusual decision to unilaterally dismiss a case before the jury could deliberate,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said. “After this and the recent turn of events, we lack confidence that Judge Persky can fairly participate in this upcoming hearing in which a male nurse sexually assaulted an anesthetized female patient. In the future, we will evaluate each case on its own merits and decide if we should use our legal right to ask for another judge in order to protect public safety and pursue justice.”

Turner is serving a six-month sentence in protective custody in a Santa Clara County jail. He likely will serve half of his sentence based on felony sentencing guidelines in California.

When Turner was convicted by a jury in March, he faced a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. Prosecutors asked the judge to sentence him to a six-year prison term for the three felony counts he was found guilty of: assault with the intent to commit rape of an unconscious person; sexual penetration of an unconscious person; and sexual penetration of an intoxicated person.

Later, his chief probation officer, Monica Lassettre, recommended a “moderate” sentence of county jail, three years of probation and sex offender treatment, according to a probation report.

In making her recommendations, which Persky signed off on before Turner’s sentencing, Lassettre considered his age, lack of criminal record, the impact of the crime on the victim, the safety of the community and “his expressed remorse.”

“This officer weighed the fact that this 20 year old offender is now a lifetime sex registrant, his future prospects will likely be highly impacted as a result of his convictions, and he surrendered a hard earned swimming scholarship,” she wrote in her report. “Perhaps, just as importantly, but sometimes overlooked, are the victim’s wishes as to the potential outcome.”

In the weeks following Persky’s decision, several jurors refused to serve in the judge’s courtroom because of his actions in the Turner case.

The woman who was sexually assaulted by Turner read a 12-page letter in open court, calling the lack of a state prison sentence “a soft time-out, a mockery of the seriousness of the assaults.”

Legal experts have said the sentence was within the law, but lighter than normal for such cases.

But the Santa Clara County Bar Association came to the judge’s defense, saying he is a strong jurist who was within his rights to hand down the sentence.

“Judges have a duty to apply the law to the facts and evidence before them, regardless of public opinion or political pressure,” the organization said in a statement released this week. “In that role, judges provide an important check against other political forces. If judges had to fear direct, personal repercussions as a result of their decisions in individual cases, the rule of law would suffer.”

The organization said it opposed any efforts to remove Persky from the bench, saying that it saw “no credible assertions” that he violated the law or acted in bad faith.

“Nor is the SCCBA aware of any other complaints or allegations of impropriety against Judge Persky during his 13 years on the bench,” the organization said. “Seeking to punish a judge under these circumstances presents the very threat to judicial independence that the SCCBA has resolved to condemn.”

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