SAN FRANCISCO—A California judge was cleared of misconduct Monday for sentencing a former Stanford University swimmer to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on campus, a punishment decried as too lenient by critics across the country.
There was no evidence that Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky displayed bias in his treatment of Brock Turner, according to the California Commission on Judicial Performance, which investigates complaints of judicial misconduct and disciplines judges.
The panel said it received thousands of complaints demanding Persky be punished over Turner’s sentence, which required the now-21-year-old to register as a sex offender for life.
Turner’s case exploded on social media and ignited a debate about campus rape and the criminal justice system after a powerful statement the victim read during the June 2 sentencing was published online.
Some critics accused the judge of coddling Turner because they were both Stanford athletes or showing gender bias by failing to take campus sexual assault seriously enough. Others say the case underscored inequities in the criminal justice system because Turner could afford a private attorney rather than a public defender.
Those urging discipline for Persky argued that a “less-privileged defendant would have received a harsher sentence,” the 11-member panel said.
However, “the commission has concluded that there is not clear and convincing evidence of bias, abuse of authority, or other basis to conclude that Judge Persky engaged in judicial misconduct warranting discipline,” according to its unsigned decision.
Persky said he was following a recommendation from the local probation department and cited Turner’s clean criminal record and the effect the conviction would have on Turner’s life in departing from the minimum sentence of two years in prison. Prosecutors had argued for six years.
The judge didn’t respond to email and phone inquiries Monday. Ethical guidelines bar Persky from publicly discussing the case, said his attorney, Kathleen Ewins.
“The difficulties for judges who become the subject of heated public criticism, but are ethically prohibited from responding, cannot be overstated,” Ewins said.
She said the commission “recognized he made a reasoned, but unpopular, decision.”
Persky now handles civil matters after he asked to be removed from criminal cases in August. He has faced physical threats, his attorney said.
The judge also remains the target of a recall campaign, led by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber.
“We strongly disagree with the commission’s conclusion on judicial bias and we believe that Judge Persky has in fact demonstrated a clear pattern of bias in cases of sex crimes and violence against women,” Dauber said.
The campaign has hired a professional signature-gathering company to help get Persky’s recall question before voters in November, Dauber said. It has to obtain about 80,000 signatures from registered Santa Clara County voters.
Meanwhile, Turner was released from jail in September after serving three months and returned to his native Ohio, where he remains on probation for three years and is a registered sex offender for life.
A jury had found him guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault for attacking a young woman passed out from too much alcohol outside a fraternity party in 2015.
Turner was on top of her behind a trash bin when two graduate students passing by on bicycles confronted him. When Turner tried to flee, they tackled and held him on the ground until police arrived.