PALO ALTO, Calif. —After a jury convicted a California man of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in a fatal drunken driving crash, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail and ordered him to undergo random alcohol testing.
The judge sentenced Frank Guerrero to three years in prison for robbing another man. In both cases, Persky followed the sentencing recommendation of the Santa Clara County Probation Department. An Associated Press review of his rulings shows that Persky has adhered to the same practice in every trial where the probation office made a recommendation since he began presiding over a Palo Alto criminal court in 2015.
That includes the sexual assault conviction of former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner, who got six months in jail and was ordered to register as a sex offender for life. Prosecutors had sought a six-year sentence.
The light sentence given to Turner, and Persky’s reasoning for it, touched off intense debate over whether he handled the case properly and drew widespread calls for the judge’s removal.
On Tuesday, the local district attorney blocked Persky from hearing a new sexual assault case and said he is considering blocking all sexual assault cases that get assigned to Persky’s court.
Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen said he lacked confidence that the judge could “fairly participate” in the new case. But Rosen said he does not support removing Persky from the bench.
The judge’s supporters describe him as a smart jurist who listens to all parties, including the probation department, and who is open to sparing first-time offenders lengthy prison sentences when he’s convinced counseling and court monitoring can help them get back on track.
“Persky has many progressive ideas,” said Gary Goodman, who is in charge of the Palo Alto public defender’s office and has more than a dozen cases pending before Persky.
But critics say Persky’s handling of the Stanford case makes him unfit for the bench. They insist he has the authority to ignore the probation department’s recommendation and that the sentence he gave to Turner marginalizes campus sexual assault and may deter future victims from reporting attacks.
“It is ignorance,” said Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who is a friend of Turner’s victim.
The AP reviewed court records for 20 criminal cases in which Persky has issued sentences, including all seven trials he presided over, since January 2015.
The probation department issued sentencing recommendations after five jury verdicts of guilty. One defendant was convicted of misdemeanor drunken driving, and the probation department did not make a recommendation. A seventh trial ended in acquittal.
Cheryl Stevens, a lawyer in the Santa Clara county counsel’s office, said the probation department is responsible for providing the court “with a neutral recommendation for sentencing of a defendant.”
Echoing findings in Turner’s probation report, Persky said on June 3 that Turner’s youth, character references, lack of a criminal record and, to a lesser extent, the role alcohol played in the assault pointed toward a short jail sentence rather than a longer prison term. Turner also has to register as a sex offender for life.
The sentence, coupled with Turner’s father’s plea for leniency because his son had already paid “a steep price … for 20 minutes of action,” thrust the case into the national debate over campus sexual assault.
Until getting assigned the Turner case, Persky and his Palo Alto court attracted little outside attention. Compared to the chaotic Hall of Justice 20 miles south in San Jose, the Palo Alto courts quietly handle a steady stream of suburban Silicon Valley crimes that rarely make headlines. But the Turner case changed that. Even before Turner was sentenced, the case drew more attention than any other Persky has handled since arriving in Palo Alto.
Because of the poor state of Santa Clara County’s technology, accessing Persky’s cases is virtually impossible for the public. The Palo Alto court clerk’s office isn’t equipped with a computer for public use, and it maintains only Persky’s current, daily calendar.
The year before the governor appointed him, Persky lost an election to a fellow prosecutor in the Santa Clara district attorney’s office for an open slot on the bench. As a prosecutor, Persky worked to keep sexually violent predators confined to mental hospitals after they served their prison terms, among other duties.
On the bench, Persky has served in family court and civil court and had a good reputation as a fair-minded and smart judge. He earned two Stanford degrees, including a master’s in international relations, and captained the school’s lacrosse team as an undergraduate. He graduated from the law school at the University of California, Berkeley.
In the Stanford case, the judge was blasted for going too easy on a well-heeled, white defendant. But a review of Persky’s other rulings gives no indication of racial bias in the cases where a defendant’s race is listed in court papers.
Persky sentenced a Tongan man to four months in jail for stealing $10,000 from an elderly couple fading into dementia he was hired to care for. The man was also ordered to get counseling for compulsive gambling.
Michael Lee Simpson, 32 and white, faced life in prison for raping a stranger when he pleaded guilty in exchange for a nearly 31-year sentence. Persky told Simpson’s public defender he would not approve a sentence any lower.
He also sentenced Kristoffer Bowen, 44 and white, to seven years in prison for pistol whipping a friend he met on his previous stint in prison.
Then there’s the case of Rachel Garcia, a Latina charged with misdemeanor theft who insisted on a trial. During jury selection last week, several potential jurors told Persky they couldn’t serve in his courtroom because of the Turner sentence.
Persky dismissed the critics, seated 14 jurors and alternates and started the trial on June 10. It was the first trial he has presided over since Turner’s, and it ended abruptly Monday when Persky tossed out the case before giving it to the jury, ruling that the prosecutor had not proved Garcia guilty.
It’s the kind of move supporters would characterize as a sign of Persky’s strength — rather than letting a weak case go to a jury he intervened.
The district attorney described it as puzzling.