Former Stanford University student Brock Turner was arrested on Jan. 18, 2015, for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. Turner was sentenced to only six months in county jail after being convicted of three felony sexual assault charges in March.
This Friday, Turner is set to be released from jail, having served only three months of his extremely lenient six-month sentence.
The 21-year-old’s light sentence was reduced to three months before he even stepped foot in a jail cell, due to “automatically applied ‘credits’” for good behavior prior to sentencing. He was also in protective custody during his entire time behind bars. Given the charges against him, Turner had originally faced up to 14 years in prison.
Turner’s lenient punishment is the perfect example of what happens when rape culture and white privilege collide. It didn’t matter that there was mounting evidence against Turner, it didn’t matter that his victim was unconscious and alone, it didn’t even matter that Turner was convicted ― the young “promising,” “successful athlete” served only three months for assaulting a young woman whose blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit and who was reportedly unconscious for three hours on the night of the assault.
The horrific assault captured the attention of the entire country in June when BuzzFeed published the 23-year-old victim’s impact statement. The survivor read the gut-wrenching letter in court and addressed her attacker face to face.
The letter is a powerful commentary on sexual assault, victim-blaming and the insidious nature of rape culture.
“You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today,” the young woman began her letter. “... Your damage was concrete; stripped of titles, degrees, enrollment. My damage was internal, unseen, I carry it with me. You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.” (Read the full letter here.)
Her letter spoke for every survivor who will never find justice or peace. And millions of people were listening.
To show support and solidarity for the victim, celebrities, politicians and reporters read the young woman’s riveting letter aloud. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden praised the survivor for her determination and courage in the midst of such a horrific experience.
Over 1 million people signed a petition calling for Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky ― who presided over Turner’s case ― to be removed from the bench over the lenient sentence. Activists and celebrities held fundraisers to galvanize the public to support their efforts. In August, Persky finally quit criminal court and will now only preside over civil court trials.
In response to Persky’s light sentence, California lawmakers recently passed legislation that would make jail time mandatory in cases like Turner’s. Under the provisions of this new legislation, Turner would have faced a minimum of three years in jail.
Public outrage was also fueled by letters from Turner’s family and friends that asked Judge Persky to go easy on Turner’s punishment. The letters epitomized rape culture and were dripping with victim-blaming excuses for Turner’s heinous crime. In a character witness letter from Turner’s father, Dan Turner described his son sexually assaulting an unconscious woman as “20 minutes of action.”
People wrote open letters to express their anger. Survivors came forward with their stories. The public took note of Turner’s privilege and how it affected his punishment. Many people took a hard look at the definition of consent. Some realized that alcohol is never an excuse for rape. Others remembered the importance of bystander intervention.
While Turner’s victim will tragically never receive the justice she so deserves, her story and her words powerfully impacted the public conversation surrounding sexual assault and the effects of rape culture.
As the young survivor said in a statement to the press in June: “I remain anonymous, yes to protect my identity, but it is also a statement that all of these people are fighting for someone that they don’t know. That’s the beauty of it. I don’t need labels, categories, to prove I’m worthy of respect, to prove I should be listened to.”
This woman was brutally assaulted, courageously came forward and then endured an agonizing character assassination throughout the trial that ― along with the trauma of her assault ― will likely stay with her the rest of her life. Brock Turner spent a summer in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Who paid a bigger price?