On Brock Turner’s defenders and secrecy

Earlier this year, the Brock Turner rape case exploded onto the public consciousness, and with good reason. A rapist attacked an unconscious woman who was unable to consent, was stopped only by the fortuitous arrival of a pair of Swedish graduate students who found him on top of her next to a dumpster, and yet only got six months in county jail — three, after good behaviour. It was manifestly unjust and gross, but it was the commentary surrounding his rape that disgusted people, from the rapist’s family and friends submitting testimonies about what a great guy he was to the judge cutting him a break because, you know, we wouldn’t want rape to ruin his life. And, of course, Turner proudly and repeatedly announced that he wanted to use this ‘opportunity’ to spread the word about ‘binge drinking,’ as though his victim was to blame simply because she’d been drinking that night.

It was a really disgusting case that still might have slid under the radar but for the fact that his victim’s statement went public. The lengthy document is a tough read, as she articulates the aftermath of the rape, the struggles she still has, her fears about the consequence of a short sentence. Turner learned that he can rape with impunity because he’s a white kid, a Stanford student (not anymore, thankfully), a good swimmer. So did other rapists with similar profiles, which is an ominous precedent to set.

But one thing about the case was really fascinating: The letters from his supporters, urging clemency. ‘Not the man I know’ comments are common in the wake of rape, but these were crystallised into formal court documents suggesting that the judge rethink a more severe sentence. They clearly weighted the judge’s decision, because, when surrounded by testimonies to what a great guy Brock is, he decided to give him an incredibly lax sentence with no real penalties. (Let me be clear: I am an abolitionist and I don’t think anyone should go to jail, but I do argue for restorative justice, and there was nothing restorative in his sentence.)

So here’s what got interesting: At least one supporter retracted her statement after being raked over the coals in public. It turns out that people get shirty with you when you support a rapist, and she discovered that her comments were having not just personal repercussions but professional ones, as venue after venue canceled appearances with her band. She, like other supporters, expressed anger that her support went public.

There are a couple of problems with this. The first was, quite simply, the fact that apparently it’s okay to support a rapist in private, as long as no one finds out, which is…why rape culture exists. If people feel like it’s acceptable to support rapists and give them stealthy legs up, those rapists, and people who want to rape, learn that it’s easy to get away with sexual assault. Apparently these people were totally comfortable putting their names to shockingly victim blame-y statements, so long as no one found out, because hoo boy, that could get awkward!

The other thing here is that court records are public unless there is a compelling reason to close them. It’s one thing to protect the identity of a rape victim, given the social stigma and abuse that rape victims experience. But you don’t just get to close court records willy nilly. If you go on the record supporting someone with a statement during the sentencing phase or during a court hearing — which I have done — then you go on the record, as in, anyone can look up that record and see what you said. And that’s appropriate.

The legal system must be transparent in order to be fair. Closed courtrooms and records mean that we don’t know what happens inside, and we have no way of knowing whether justice was served. In this case, it very clearly wasn’t, which is why it was so important to be able to read over these documents. We needed to understand the factors that went into Judge Persky’s decision to give Turner little more than a gentle tap on the wrist. Those records needed to be public.

They helped members of the public understand that Judge Persky should be removed from office, whether by petition, recall, election, or other means. Without having this contextual information, without knowing that the trial had happened, the public in his district wouldn’t have been able to make informed decisions about their judge.

People may not be aware that in California, judges cannot distribute political advertising. When judges run for election in California, they rely instead on things like media profiles, and, yes, their judicial records. Those same records are what political campaigners look at, too. If I want to know whether I should vote for a judge, I look to the records of that judge’s time on the bench, as well as cases that the judge may have been involved with as an attorney prior to a judicial career. As a member of the public and a voter, I have the right to see those records to learn more about the people I’m voting for, and those records include statements made in court.

Personally speaking, I wouldn’t want to hire or associate with someone who made apologies for a rapist. Those court records are relevant not just as character testimonies about Brock Turner, but character testimonies about the people who made those statements. If I were a prospective employer or organisation partnering with one of those people, I would want to know what they’d said, especially if I was, say, managing a rape crisis centre, or organising an event for victims of sexual assault.

If you want to support a rapist, own your words. If you’ll only speak under the assumption that no one will actually find out what you said, I think you need to take a step back and question your priorities.

Image: Slutwalk, roga muffin, Flickr