When Lauren Chief Elk heard the name of the judge whose sentence in the case of a former Stanford athlete accused of sexual assault drew outrage, something clicked.
Five years earlier she had been a witness in a trial over which Aaron Persky presided that bore some striking similarities to the Stanford case, she said.
“He loves to coddle rapists,” she wrote on Twitter.
In 2007, Chief Elk said she and two other young women witnessed a group of baseball players from De Anza community college raping an unconscious 17-year-old woman at a house party. The men said the sex was consensual. After the Santa Clara district attorney decided not to press charges, the woman sought monetary compensation for emotional distress from the men, in a 2011 civil trial, over which Persky presided.
Chief Elk’s criticism of Persky’s behavior in the De Anza case echoes claims that he acted favorably to former Stanford student Brock Turner, raising questions of possible bias, both from the judge and the U.S. legal system at large. Some of Persky’s colleagues dismissed the condemnations and spoke highly of the judge, who is barred from speaking to the press about the case due to a possible appeal.
“I don’t have a nice word [to say about Persky],” Chief Elk told the Forward over the phone.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara Deputy Alternate Defender Barbara Muller, who works with Persky on a regular basis, said “he’s very fair, thoughtful and smart.”
Prior to working as a judge, Persky prosecuted sexual predators for the county’s district attorney’s office, and he has been active in a local support network for battered women, according to his campaign website.
Calls for the judge’s recall grew loud after the judge rejected the prosecution’s recommendation to sentence 20-year-old Turner to six years in prison, saying a lengthy sentence “would have a severe impact on him.”
“The judge had to bend over backwards to accommodate this young man,” said Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, according to NBC.
Some involved in the De Anza trial have similar criticisms of how Persky handled the case, alleging he made decisions that benefited men accused of sexual assault.
Persky “favored the defendants,” said Barbara Spector, the plaintiff’s attorney, citing his decision to ban a woman from testifying who said she had been sexually assaulted by some of the defendants in the same house, and others.
“That testimony would have been important to the jury,” Spector said.
In the end, two of the defendants were found not liable for damages by the jury, while others settled privately with the plaintiff or had the lawsuit dropped.
The judge also allowed the defense to show photos of the defendant at a party wearing revealing clothing even though Spector argued that such photos would have an impact on the jurors that was not necessarily relevant to the case.
“I was disappointed and surprised,” Spector said of the judge’s decision to allow the photos to be used. “I had a basis for arguing against them.”
Like the defendants in the De Anza case, Turner was a college athlete, and Dauber has suggested Persky, who was captain of the lacrosse team at Stanford, may have identified with Turner, a swimmer who hoped to compete in the Olympics.
Dauber is launching a campaign to recall Persky, and a petition urging the judge’s removal from the bench had amassed over one million signatures late Thursday evening.
Santa Clara Deputy Public Defender Gary Goodman saw no merit in such a campaign. “You may not agree with the result, but the way he came about it was absolutely correct,” he said.
To those critical of Persky, his sentence represents a larger problem in the U.S. legal system.
“Unfortunately I think his response is not uncommon, but that doesn’t make it right,” said Julie Goldscheid, an expert on gender equality at CUNY law school, calling the Turner case “emblematic of some of the classic problems survivors of sexual assault face when they try to get justice.”
Chief Elk said her experience testifying in Persky’s court left her disillusioned with the judicial system.
“I was told that in criminal justice system, this is where truth comes out and the full story is told,” she said. “And that is not true.”
Contact Josefin Dolsten at email@example.com or on Twitter, @JosefinDolsten
Josefin Dolsten is a former news fellow at the Forward, writing about politics and culture, and editing the Sisterhood blog. She received an MA in Jewish Studies and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a BA in Government from Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at @josefindolsten.