LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Californians voted in a special election to unseat a state judge who drew worldwide condemnation for giving a six-month jail sentence to a Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, a former prosecutor appointed to the bench in 2003 by then-Governor Gray Davis next month will become the first sitting judge recalled in more than 80 years in the state.
In Tuesday’s election, 60 percent of the more than 176,058 voters who cast ballots approved a petition to recall Persky, according to unofficial results posted online by the county registrar. The registrar is expected to certify the results on July 5, spokesman Steven Spivak said.
“There is no such thing as an elected official who (is)independent of the electorate. That is not a thing,” Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor who organized the recall petition, wrote in a Twitter message on Wednesday.
Persky came under fire in June 2016 for sentencing 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. The letter was posted online and went viral, resonating with people around the world.
Turner’s sentence, which predated the #MeToo movement of women speaking out publicly against sexual harassment and abuse, was held up as a symbol of how the U.S. justice system fails to take sex crimes seriously enough.
The recall vote sparked came at a time that has seen hundreds of women publicly accusing powerful men in business, government and entertainment of sexual misconduct and harassment.
Persky is not planning to issue a statement about the election, according to LaDoris Cordell, a retired female judge who served with Persky on the Santa Clara County Superior Court and who led much of the opposition to the recall.
Persky had won re-election since his appointment, and his current six-year term would have expired in January 2023.
Persky, himself a former lacrosse player at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, said at a news conference last month that sentencing guidelines and probation department recommendations had limited his options in sentencing the former student. He has asserted that his recall would undermine the independence of the judiciary.
Under California law, voters can petition for elections to remove state officials from office for any reason.
“We ask judges to follow the rule of law and not the rule of public opinion,” Persky told the news conference.
Two women ran to succeed him in a separate, nonpartisan race. Under state law, Persky would leave office when the winner, Cindy Seeley Hendrickson, takes the oath of office. That must occur within 10 days of the July 5 vote certification, a Santa Clara County Superior Court spokesman Benjamin Rada said.
Prosecutors had asked that Turner be given six years in prison. He had faced up to 14 years behind bars, and under normal sentencing guidelines would have been likely to receive at least two years in prison.
Turner was released for good behavior in September 2016 after serving just three months of his six-month term and has since appealed his conviction. He returned to his parents’ home near Dayton, Ohio, where he was required to register as a sex offender, the Dayton Daily News reported at the time.
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 recommending the lighter sentence in the county jail, rather than a state prison.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Paul Tait, Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)