California judge criticized in rape sentencing appears headed for recall

Activists hold signs calling for the removal of Judge Aaron Persky from the bench after his controversial sentencing in the Stanford rape case, in San Francisco, California, U.S. June 10, 2016. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/Files

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The California judge who drew worldwide condemnation for giving a six-month jail sentence to a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman appeared headed for removal in a recall election on Tuesday, early returns showed.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, a former prosecutor appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, would become the first sitting judge recalled in the state of California in more than 80 years.

With 39 percent of precincts reporting, the campaign to unseat Persky, organised by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, had garnered support from nearly 59 percent of the vote, compared with 41 percent opposing the recall, according to online returns posted by the county registrar.

Dauber issued a statement about 90 minutes after polls closed saying she was “cautiously optimistic.”

Cindy Seeley Hendrickson, the candidate she endorsed in a separate two-way race to succeed Persky, was leading with 71 percent of the vote. Her opponent, Angela Storey, trailed with 29 percent.

Persky came under fire in June 2016 for sentencing former Stanford swim team member Brock Turner, then 20, to six months in the county jail and three years probation for three counts of sexual assault, a penalty widely denounced as too lenient.

Uproar over the sentencing was fueled in part by an open letter from the victim, who remains anonymous, recounting her ordeal in graphic terms.

Predating the #MeToo movement of women speaking out publicly against sexual harassment and abuse, the outcome of the Turner case became a symbol of how the U.S. justice system fails to take sex crimes seriously enough.

Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in state prison. He had faced up to 14 years in prison, and under normal sentencing guidelines would likely have received at least two years behind bars.

Turner was released after serving just three months of his six-month term and has since appealed against his conviction, although he had to register as a sex offender in his home state of Ohio.

California’s judicial oversight commission received thousands of complaints about the sentencing but concluded in its report that Persky was unbiased and acted in accordance with a probation report.

Probation officials had recommended a “moderate” county jail sentence followed by three years of probation and sex offender treatment. In addition to finding no evidence of bias, the judicial commission cleared Persky of misconduct and determined the sentence was legal and within the judge’s discretion.

Persky, himself a former Stanford athlete, held a news conference last month saying he had been bound by sentencing guidelines and recommendations of the probation department. He has asserted that his recall would undermine the independence of the judiciary.

“We ask judges to follow the rule of law and not the rule of public opinion,” he said at the time.

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