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Light sentence for Stanford rapist sparks national outrage

Last week, 20-year-old Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner was facing up to 20 years, and the lenient sentence has drawn criticism from observers -- including the victim, who had pushed in court for a harsh punishment. Judy Woodruff talks to Michelle Anderson of City University of New York for more on the case.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: the sentencing in a sexual assault case at Stanford University attracting international outrage.

    Last week, 20-year-old Brock Turner was sentenced to six months in jail for the assault of an unconscious woman. Turner, who was a competitive swimmer with Olympic hopes, was convicted on three felony counts, including intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman.

    The judge, who said he weighed Turner's lack of criminal history and remorsefulness, gave him a lenient sentence. The unidentified victim read a letter in court that she later released to the news Web site BuzzFeed. It went viral.

    In it, she wrote — quote — "How fast Brock swims does not lessen the severity of what happened to me, and should not lessen the severity of his punishment. If a first-time offender from an underprivileged background was accused of three felonies and displayed no accountability for his actions other than drinking, what would his sentence be?"

    And joining us now is Michelle Anderson. She's the dean of the School of Law at the City University of New York.

    Dean Anderson, thank you very much for being here.

    I want to read just a part of what Brock Turner's father wrote in a letter to the judge.

    He said — quote — "This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life."

    How does the sentence that 20-year-old Brock Turner receive compare to other sexual assault — people who were convicted of sexual assault in similar circumstances? How do they compare?

    MICHELLE ANDERSON, Dean, CUNY School of Law: Well, it's a challenging question, because courts are really all over the map in terms of how they sentence sexual assault.

    Cases like this not infrequently receive very light sentences. Sometimes, if the circumstances are different, they receive heavier sentences.

    What's interesting about this case is that it's an unusual case, in that it's not a he said/she said. It's a case in which the two witnesses found the incident happening as it was occurring, and chased the defendant down, and held him until the police came. There was physical evidence corroborating the victim's story. So, it was unusual in that sense.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The district attorney had argued for six years. As we said, the judge said six months.

    What does a judge take into consideration in coming up with sentencing?

  • MICHELLE ANDERSON:

    So, judges frequently take into consideration obviously the prior history of the defendant, whether or not he or she has been convicted of other offenses, sometimes, the age of a defendant and the circumstances of the offense, how much violence was used at the time.

    These are the kinds of factors that are taken into account. And so taking those factors into account is not unusual. Taking into account the duration of time that the father mentioned in his statement wouldn't be something that would necessarily be part of — would be an ordinary factor that would be assessed.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And what about the fact that this 20-year-old man comes from what appears to be an upper-middle-class background?

  • MICHELLE ANDERSON:

    So, that's an interesting element of this case.

    What you have got is a circumstance that doesn't comport with the stereotype of what many people believe rape is like. It's a white defendant, someone who is — comes from a privileged background. Whatever his financial status before he attended Stanford, he certainly comes from an elite institution, was considered an All-American swimmer, an athlete of great import to the Stanford community, and with hopes of becoming an Olympic athlete.

    So, those are the kinds of factors, I think, that color the way that the media and the public have responded to this case, someone who comes from extraordinary privilege, in a case that's fairly straightforward, from a — from the — given the fact that there were witnesses and the evidence in the form of corroborative evidence on the victim's body.

    These are unusual aspects of the case. And the disparity in privilege between the defendant and the victim is also — heightens the interest in this kind of a case.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    I want to ask you finally about the letter the victim read to the accused.

    We haven't identified — she hasn't been identified, but she read out loud in the courtroom to the accused man. She said — and this is part of it — she said: "I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives, you and me. You are the cause, I am the effect. You have dragged me through this hell with you, dipped me back into that night again and again. If you think I was spared, came out unscathed, that today I ride off into sunset, while you suffer the greatest blow, you are mistaken."

    What are we left with? We know most victims don't speak out like this. What do we — what should we take away from this?

  • MICHELLE ANDERSON:

    Well, the case is unusual because of the extraordinary articulateness of this particular victim, and the fact that she used the opportunity to say some important things about how rape is experienced by its victims.

    The part of the victim's statement that really hit home with me and I think with many other people is the part where she says, "I didn't want my body anymore."

    And we know that rape and sexual assault can be an invasion of privacy. It can be something that degrades somebody and takes away their dignity. But the notion that it takes away one's possession of one's own body and that one wants to reject one's own body, I found that very powerful, and that quotation has come up and been reposted again and again.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, it is certainly — this is a case that has certainly left, I think, an impact on many, many people.

    Dean Michelle Anderson with the City University of New York Law School, thank you very much.

  • MICHELLE ANDERSON:

    Thank you.

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