SAN FRANCISCO — The beginning of the end for the first California judge recalled since 1932 began almost exactly two years ago, when Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky sentenced a former Stanford swimmer convicted of sexual assault to six months in jail instead of a long prison term.
A statement from the victim captured the national spotlight, recounting the ordeal of the investigation and trial, where she was cross-examined about her drinking habits and sexual experience.
“You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today,” she said in a statement read in court before the June 2016 sentencing of Brock Turner.
Within days, a politically connected Stanford law professor who was friends with the victim launched a campaign to recall the judge.
On Tuesday, Santa Clara County voters agreed and recalled the judge from office after his nearly 15-year career on the bench.
“The broader message of this victory is that violence against women is now a voting issue,” said Michele Dauber, an outspoken women’s rights campus activist who launched the recall effort. She said the local vote will resonate nationally and underscores the staying power of the #MeToo movement.
“This is a historical moment in time. Women are standing up for their rights and there is a national reckoning.”
Persky, who declined to comment Tuesday, said repeatedly that he couldn’t discuss the case that spurred the recall because Turner has appealed his conviction. But in a lengthy interview with The Associated Press last month, he said he didn’t regret the decision and was taken aback by the reaction.
“I expected some negative reaction,” Persky said. “But not this.”
Persky said he was adopting the probation department’s recommendation to spare Turner prison for several reasons, including Turner’s age, clean criminal record and the fact that both Turner and the victim were intoxicated.
“The problem with this recall is it will pressure judges to follow the rule of public opinion as opposed to the rule of law.”
The California Commission on Judicial Performance ruled that he handled the case legally. Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen didn’t appeal the sentence.
The case sparked a national debate over the criminal justice system’s treatment of sexual assault victims and racial inequities in court.
Persky is white and holds undergraduate degrees from Stanford and a law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. Many complained Persky showed too much deference to Turner, a white Stanford scholarship athlete whose parents could afford a private attorney. Activists pointed to numerous other cases in which minorities faced much harsher sentences for less egregious crimes.
The victim, who came to be known as Emily Doe, testified she was passed out behind a trash can when two men saw Turner on top of her. The two men, Swedish graduate students, yelled at Turner to stop and then chased him and held him down for police when tried to flee.
The Associated Press generally doesn’t identify sexual assault victims.
Persky said he took the victim’s experience into account when sentencing Turner.
But the judge said the publicity of Turner’s arrest and trial and the young man’s loss of a swimming scholarship also factored into his sentence. Turner is also required to register for life as a sex offender. Persky cited numerous letters of support friends, former teachers and employers wrote on behalf of Turner.
“I think you have to take the whole picture in terms of what impact imprisonment has on a specific individual’s life,” Persky said during the sentencing hearing.