A US judge who was worried a trial would ruin the life of a teenage boy accused of rape has resigned. But the controversy has highlighted the toxic rape culture entrenched in the legal system that’s preventing women from reporting sexual violence, says Christobel Hastings
It’s been three and a half years since Brock Turner, a then-19-year-old Stanford University student, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster outside a fraternity house party. There were witnesses to the assault, and the three charges upon which Turner was found guilty were clear cut: sexually assaulting an intoxicated victim, sexually assaulting an unconscious victim, and attempted rape.
Except that the course of justice didn’t run smooth. The judge, Aaron Persky, repeatedly brought up the fact that Turner was a star swimmer who had dreams of reaching the Olympics, and cited positive character references, Turner’s remorse, and lack of previous criminal record as factors that must be considered in the ruling. Meanwhile, Turner’s own father sparked outrage after making a statement saying that incarceration was “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action”. Despite the harrowing evidence, Turner was handed a lenient sentence of just six months in jail.
The trial kicked off a national conversation about sexual assault, and highlighted how white men of privilege and power are treated more favourably by the criminal justice system. So too did it throw the extent of victim-blaming into sharp relief, when Turner’s victim, a young woman now known by the pseudonym Emily Doe, penned a powerful open letter on life after her rape. “The violation of my body and my being added up to a few months out of his summer,” she wrote. “If this case was meant to set the bar, the bar had been set on the floor.”
The legacy of Brock Turner’s trial returned to the spotlight this week, after it emerged that a US judge ruled a teenage rape defendant deserved leniency because he came from a “good family”. According to investigators, the 16-year-old sent a video of himself allegedly raping a teenage girl to his friends, alongside the message: “When your first time having sex is rape.”
The video reportedly shows the accused blockading a 16-year-old girl in a dark basement at a pyjama-themed house party, who, according to the prosecution, was “visibly intoxicated, physically helpless and unable to provide consent.” The boy allegedly then penetrates the girl from behind, as her head repeatedly hits the wall, whilst recording the entire incident on his mobile phone.
But Monmouth County Superior Court Judge James Troiano, presiding over the Superior Court in New Jersey, disagreed that the attack was “cruel”, “predatory” and a “deliberate act of debasement”, and ruled that the case should not be escalated to an adult court. “This young man comes from a good family who put him into an excellent school where he was doing extremely well,” Troiano said. “He is clearly a candidate for not just college but probably for a good college. His scores for college entry were very high.”
Worse yet, Troiano cast doubt over whether the alleged incident even amounted to rape, even though the boy had described his own actions as such. The case wasn’t a “traditional case of rape”, he argued, in which “generally two or more males involved, either at gunpoint or [with a] weapon, clearly manhandling a person into…an area where… there was nobody around, sometime in an abandoned house, sometimes in an abandoned shed, shack, and just simply taking advantage of the person as well as beating the person, threatening the person.”
The judge also said that the boy’s messages, who was identified only as “GMC”, were simply “just a 16-year-old kid saying stupid crap to his friends,” and reprimanded prosecutors for not making it clear to the victim that pressing charges would have a “devastating effect” on the life of a young man with a good family and good grades. But if you read through the details of the case, it very clearly emerges that this was not a “childish misinterpretation”. In the aftermath of the alleged incident, GMC lied about having recorded the encounter to the girl, while “simultaneously disseminating the video and unabashedly sharing the nature of his conduct therein”.
This case is coming to light, it must be noted, because Troiano’s decision was overturned in an appeals court, which has allowed the case to progress from a family court to an adult court where GMC will be tried by a grand jury. The appeal court ruled that instead of neutrally assessing the case, Troiano had “decided the case for himself” and shown “skeptical scrutiny” of the victim’s credibility.
On 17 July, meanwhile, The New York Times reported that Troiano had officially resigned from the bench in the midst of nationwide condemnation. A new training initiative for New Jersey judges was also introduced by acting Administrative Director of the Courts Glenn A. Grant, focussing on an “enhancement of existing training for judges in the areas of sexual assault, domestic violence, implicit bias, and diversity.” But why has it taken petitions, protests, and public outcry to expose the levels of entrenched bias in the legal system working against sexual assault victims?
There are many troubling aspects of this case: the boy’s alleged sexual violence, the victim-blaming, the bias of the judge, how the video was shared amongst the community but not reported until the victim’s parents went to the police. But above all, this case exposes, how, at this moment in time, good men are permitted to get away with bad things.
Judge Troiano probably never expected to be overruled. He probably didn’t think twice about the case after he passed down the sentence. He probably never anticipated that his comments to make headlines. These comments, although passed down in court, were emblematic of a casual, widespread, and therefore exceptionally dangerous attitude towards sexual violence seeping through the highest echelons of society.
How can we begin to tackle rape culture, when judges are ruling that the sexual crimes of boys and men that come from good families and respectable reputations don’t count? How is it that in the face of a harrowing rape, a judge would focus on preserving the promising future of the alleged perpetrator, rather than seeking justice for the lived experiences of the victim? And how can it be possible that a young woman, who has summoned the courage to report her trauma, is portrayed as the destructive force whose allegations have the power to destroy a white boy’s future?
If this script sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Recently, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on allegations of sexual assault from former classmate Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Despite her powerful testimony and credible witness statement, as well as the accusations of three other female classmates, the Senate voted to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination, who was confirmed to the highest court in the land in October.
Meanwhile, in Donald Trump’s America, where the leader of the most powerful nation in the world stands accused by more than twenty women of inappropriate sexual behaviour and misconduct, the idea that privileged white men can survive and thrive in the face of sexual assault allegations, while women are shamed, abused and punished for speaking up, is a precedent that has been set from on-high. Let’s not forget, that in 2016, at the height of Trump’s sexual assault allegations, 62% of Americans believed he was the transformative force that the country so desperately needed.
Until the criminal justice system is purged of its pervasive gender, race and class inequalities, women will never be able to demand accountability for sexual violence, and continue to suffer lifelong trauma as a result. Meanwhile, rape culture will continue to regenerate, in the cyclical way it does. Young men accused of rape will become respected figures of authority, and one day, they’ll be dismissing the harmful actions of boys in the dock.