Judge in Stanford assault trial recuses himself from new sex crimes case

Aaron Persky, California judge who faced criticisms for his sentencing of Brock Turner, announced he would be stepping down from the case of Robert Chain

The embattled judge in the Stanford sexual assault trial has recused himself from a new sex crimes case in an unusual move that suggests that the aggressive campaign to unseat him has impacted his courtroom.

Aaron Persky, the northern California judge who faced widespread criticisms for his sentencing of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, announced that he would be stepping down from the case of Robert Chain, a 48-year-old man who pleaded guilty to possessing child abuse images.

“While on vacation earlier this month, my family and I were exposed to publicity surrounding this case,’’ Persky wrote in a ruling on Thursday, according to the East Bay Times. “This publicity has resulted in a personal family situation such that ‘a person aware of the facts might reasonably entertain a doubt that the judge would be able to be impartial.’”

Persky’s four-day sentence for Chain is one of several cases his opponents have cited in their growing recall campaign, arguing that the judge is too lenient with offenders convicted of serious sex crimes.

In June, Persky gave a six-month jail sentence to Turner, a former Stanford student convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman by a dumpster outside of a campus party. The punishment was significantly less severe than the minimum prison time of two years prescribed by state law for his felony offenses, and advocates across the US said the decision did not reflect the seriousness of college sexual assault.

After Turner’s case sparked a national debate about sexual violence, Persky has faced a high-profile recall campaign and intense scrutiny of past and ongoing cases.

Critics have argued that Persky, a Stanford alumnus and former college athlete, has repeatedly failed to hold sex offenders and domestic abusers accountable. His defenders, however, argue that he is a fair judge who consistently gives defendants a fair chance to turn their lives around without ordering unnecessarily harsh prison sentences.

Chain ultimately spent only one night in county jail, and the recall campaign, along with local prosecutors, said Persky’s sentencing was uncommon for this type of offense. Records of more than a dozen similar cases in the same county showed that other judges routinely ordered six months behind bars for defendants convicted of the same felony of possessing child abuse images.

Eleven other judges all gave six-month sentences for similar cases since 2012, according to research by the recall campaign.

Chain had also requested that the judge reduce the felony to a misdemeanor charge, and records show that when he finalized a plea deal, Persky said he “would be receptive” to this downgrade after one year of Chain successfully complying with probation rules.

The local district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the Stanford sexual assault case, said it opposed that reduction, and a hearing on the matter was scheduled for 25 August.

But on Thursday, one week after the Chain case made headlines, Persky “abruptly” notified lawyers in both cases that he would be stepping aside with the brief ruling citing publicity and a “personal family situation”, according to the East Bay Times. The newspaper said that local judge Kenneth Barnum will take over the case with a new hearing on 6 October.

Stanford law professor Michele Landis Dauber, who is leading the recall campaign, applauded Persky’s recusal, saying: “It’s a relief that he won’t be hearing this case, because his sentence in the first place was dramatically out of step … with the sentences any other judge in the county would’ve given.”

“We think that he is clearly biased in the area of sex crimes and domestic violence,” she added.

Terry Harman, assistant district attorney, said prosecutors are moving forward with the case under the new judge.

“It is a judge’s responsibility to recuse him or herself if there are issues of impartiality. We’re focused on the prosecution of the defendant in this matter. We’re confident that the case will be handled by the bench fairly,” she said in a statement.

This is not the first case Persky has been forced to abandon in the wake of the Stanford controversy.

Two weeks after the Turner sentencing, local prosecutors took the unusual step of removing the judge from a case involving a male nurse who allegedly sexually assaulted an anesthetized female patient. The district attorney’s office said at the time it lacked confidence in Persky.

A spokesman for the court did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.


Sam Levin in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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