When an Olympic hopeful swimmer attending prestigious Stanford University was recently sentenced to six months in a county jail for the sexual assault of a woman at a fraternity party, social media erupted with fury. The case drew so much attention that Vice President Joe Biden weighed in on the issue with an open letter supporting the victim.
She has chosen to remain anonymous but spoke out on her own behalf in a letter aimed at her attacker.
Interest in the case has been intense in part because victims rarely come forward to address their attackers publicly, and it has put a spotlight on what many see as the U.S. justice system's tendency to go easy on affluent, white defendants.
The swimmer, Brock Turner, was sentenced June 2 for three felony convictions of sexual assault, committed in January 2015 outside a fraternity party on campus.
His victim was a 23-year-old woman who made a last-minute decision to accompany her younger sister to a fraternity party. The woman, who was not a student at Stanford, said in the 7,422-word statement she read aloud in court that she drank liquor “too fast” and got drunk.
By her account, by Turner’s, and by those of other witnesses in court records, the victim ended up separated from her friends and alone with Turner behind a trash receptacle outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity house.
Witnesses step in
Two graduate students riding by on bicycles noticed Turner lying on top of her half-naked body, thrusting his hips at her while she remained motionless. The graduate students confronted Turner, chased him and pinned him down until police arrived. They said in their testimony that the victim was unconscious the whole time.
Court statements by Turner and his father portrayed him as an innocent freshman, unused to the drinking and partying that goes on at college and swayed by peer pressure to pursue girls. They blamed alcohol consumption and described the encounter as mutually consensual.
But witnesses told police and the courts that Turner had been aggressively pursuing women at the party all night, kissing girls and touching them without invitation. He had kissed the victim’s sister, who rebuffed him. When the sister left to walk another friend back to her dorm, Turner and the victim ended up alone together.
“I asked her if she wanted to dance, so we began to dance together and eventually started kissing one another," Turner wrote in his statement. “I bring up the idea of her coming back to my dorm room, and she agrees to accompany me back there.”
“I was the wounded antelope of the herd, completely alone and vulnerable, physically unable to fend for myself, and he chose me,” the victim argued. “Sometimes I think, if I hadn’t gone [to the party], this never would’ve happened. But then I realized, it would have happened, just to somebody else.”
She railed against Turner’s reluctance to take responsibility for anything more than overdrinking, saying, “We were both drunk. The difference is, I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away.”
A 2015 poll by The Washington Post backed up statistics found previously in a nationwide study that said about 1 in 5 women and about 1 in 20 men had been the victims of some kind of sexual assault on college campuses. In two-thirds of those incidents, alcohol was involved.
Potential 14-year term
Turner was convicted of felony sexual assault for having penetrated the victim with his fingers while she was intoxicated and unconscious. The potential sentence for such convictions is up to 14 years in prison; prosecutors asked for six.
But the judge, Aaron Persky, a Stanford alumnus and former college athlete, gave Turner only six months in a county jail, which can be reduced to three months if Turner behaves well. Persky said a longer sentence might have a “severe impact” on the young athlete and his future.
Turner is currently in the Santa Clara County Jail. He dropped out of Stanford, and the U.S. Olympic swimming team said he would not be allowed to try out for the team.
But women's rights advocates argued that his sentence was too light.
Persky is now the target of a number of online petitions calling for his recall. Those petitions — the largest at Change.org — have collected more than 1 million signatures. A Stanford law professor, Michele Dauber, has begun a recall effort as well, and members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus have joined it.
The victim’s decision to speak out publicly is an important step in validating the experience of other victims of sexual assault and may give others the courage to come forward, Terri Poore, policy director of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, told VOA. She said statistics on sexual assault are hard to confirm because victims are often reluctant to talk about their experiences, afraid they won’t be taken seriously.
Poore said, “Sometimes people don’t even tell friends, much less the criminal justice system.” She added, “It gives survivors solace and courage whenever they hear another survivor’s voice this way.”
Biden published his open letter to the victim Thursday on the website Buzzfeed, which had published her statement. “You are a warrior,” Biden wrote. “The statistics on college sexual assault haven’t gone down in the past two decades. It’s obscene, and it’s a failure that lies at all of our feet.”
Court documents said the victim has vowed privately to continue speaking out for victims of sexual assault. She released a follow-up statement saying she planned to remain anonymous at present and added, “for now, I am everywoman.”
She directed the final paragraph of her statement at other victims of sexual assault:
“When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you. So never stop fighting. I believe you.”