SAN FRANCISCO — Voters in a California county appeared to hand down a sentence of their own Tuesday to recall controversial Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, according to early results from about half of the ballots.
If successful, it would be the first time since 1932 that voters in California opted to recall a sitting justice.
Persky gained national notoriety in June 2016 after the conviction on sexual assault charges of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, sentencing him to six months in jail — a sentence many argued was far too lenient.
Chair of the Recall Persky Campaign, Michele Dauber, issued a statement Tuesday evening saying “we are cautiously optimistic. Tonight’s results mirror what we heard while we were out talking to voters. We are thankful for our supporters and every person who donated their time — it truly made a difference.”
The embattled justice, in a rare interview with CNN last week, argued a successful recall effort wouldn’t simply remove him from the bench, but would likely to set a dangerous precedent in the future.
“I think generally judges should accept criticism” Persky maintained. They should accept responsibility for rulings. But when it gets to the step of a recall — actually recalling a judge primarily based on one decision — that, for me, is a step too far,” he said.
“That’s why I’ve chosen to speak out because I think it threatens the independence of judges in California and perhaps even the nation.”
Though unable to speak about the Turner case specifically because it remains under appeal, Persky has not indicated he would have done anything differently.
Prosecutors had asked for a six-year prison sentence, but Persky agreed with the recommendation from the county probation department, which noted that, “When compared to other crimes of similar nature” the Turner case “may be considered less serious due to (his) level of intoxication.”
Critics immediately pounced and accused Persky of going easy on Turner because of his commonalities with the defendant. Like Turner, Persky was also a Stanford athlete. (He played lacrosse.)
Still, the case may have faded from the national spotlight had it not been for the emotionally searing letter the victim read to Turner at sentencing. Within days, it went viral on the internet.
“You don’t know me, but you’ve been inside me, and that’s why we’re here today,” the letter began.
“You made me a victim. In newspapers my name was ‘unconscious intoxicated woman,’ 10 syllables, and nothing more than that. For a while, I believed that that was all I was.”
Critics of Persky, who has been on the bench since 2003, find it ironic that his judicial background also included work as a sex crimes prosecutor. In other words, he helped incarcerate people like Turner, 22, who is now living near Dayton, Ohio, and required to register annually for life as a sex offender.
That’s a penalty so burdensome that if Turner were to have children someday, he wouldn’t be able to get near their school. Supporters of Persky often point to this fact.