JUSTICE

Meet the Stanford professor on a mission to overthrow the judge who sentenced Brock Turner

Elena Scotti/FUSION

After the news of a six-month prison sentence for a Stanford University rapist swept the nation, the name Brock Turner was on everybody’s lips. Overnight, he became the poster boy for everything wrong with campus rape culture and the way that, despite eyewitnesses, perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt and victims are routinely denied justice.

But another name that has emerged from this harrowing case is Michele Dauber, a law professor at the school. Dauber has been tirelessly working toward getting Turner’s sentencing judge removed from the bench—and getting justice for Turner’s victim, for those like her at Stanford, and for the many, many others like her at colleges across the country.

“I think we are at a pivotal moment in the treatment of campus rape by the justice system, or at least in the way the public views that,” Dauber told me in a phone conversation. “And I think the outrage over the unreasonably lenient sentence in this case really shows that people really expect assaults—whether on campus or somewhere else—to be treated like the violent crimes that they are.”

Michele Dauber is on a mission.Courtesy of Michele Dauber

Michele Dauber is on a mission.

Turner’s case caught the nation’s attention earlier this month when the statement his anonymous victim read at his sentencing hearing was published online and swiftly went viral. In her powerful missive, the victim admitted that she didn’t think Turner should serve hard time, but that she also wanted justice for her pain and incredible suffering. She wrote: “As this is a first offence I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone’s first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn’t make sense. The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error.”

And that’s the culture that Dauber has spent much of her career trying to combat. She co-chaired Stanford’s Board on Judicial Affairs from 2011 to 2013 and helped lead the way for revising the school’s sexual assault policy. And yet, despite all her efforts and having tenure at the school, she balked when I suggested that her students look up to her. She is both wildly confident yet humble in the way she approaches her job.

But all of her work couldn’t have prepared her for what was to come. In early 2015, heartbreak struck close to home in what she called “a terrible coincidence”: A 23-year-old family friend was sexually assaulted by a freshman member of the men’s swimming team while she was unconscious behind a dumpster on campus. The friend, of course, turned out to be Turner’s victim.

“Her writing really touched people because some people have had this experience but have no words for it, and other people haven’t had this experience and couldn’t really imagine it or have access to what that would be like,” Dauber told me. “And this has allowed them to do that.”

While it wasn’t the first time sexual assault personally touched her life, that didn’t make it easier to deal with. It was her personal connection to the Turner case that compelled her to spearhead the effort to recall Judge Aaron Persky, a former Stanford athlete himself and the man who bestowed upon Turner what many deemed an unfathomably lenient sentence.

There are multiple online efforts to unseat Persky—notably a Change.org petition with more than one million signatures—but Dauber’s effort is the most well-staffed and organized. With the help of organizations like the Progressive Women of Silicon Valley political action committee and the National Organization for Women, Dauber said she is “one hundred percent confident that we will be successful with [recalling Persky].”

The short term goal is straightforward: to get rid of Persky—a 13-year veteran on the bench in Santa Clara County with an until-now squeaky clean record—and replace him with another judge who she believes understands the far-reaching impact of sexual violence. But in a larger sense, this effort will restore power to the voters who feel victimized by this perceived miscarriage of justice.

While Dauber has harnessed all of her influence and political connections in her efforts, she was quick to note that the real power for reform is almost entirely within the student body. “Students are the greatest changemakers that we have on our campuses, and they are the ones who are ultimately able to get things changed.”

She pointed to Stanford ASAP, a student-founded campus group that educates other students about the realities of sexual assault on campus. Dauber was also awed by the students who protested at Sunday’s graduation festivities by holding signs that said things like “Brock Turner is not the exception” and “It doesn’t matter what she was drinking.” To her, this was a powerful statement that something had to be done—and that the university simply isn’t doing enough to quell students’ fears of future assaults on campus, and not being believed should they find themselves the victim.

“You would think that if a woman gets sexually assaulted by a dumpster on campus by a recruited athlete that that would be a moment of real reflection inside the institution,” Dauber said. But instead, the university issued a formal statement on June 6th that stood to distance itself from the events of January 17, 2015. The statement claimed that “Stanford University did everything within its power to assure that justice was served in this case,” and served to clear up the “significant amount of misinformation circulating about Stanford’s role.”

Dauber was alarmed by the university’s lack of empathy for the victim and continues to wait for an announcement about plans to create a safer community, free of sexual assault. So far, no such announcement has been made. She’s also called on the university to pay for the victim’s therapy because her trauma forced her to leave her job. Again, she said they have been silent.

I reached out to Stanford’s press office to see if they had any plans in the works for comprehensive changes like additional street lights on campus, or security at on-campus events. A spokesperson replied that “Stanford has already been a leader in implementing programs to prevent sexual violence and provide support to students who may have experienced violence. The safety and security of our students is our top priority.” (That may be so, but as The Daily Beast reported last week, the university reported a sexual assault every two weeks in the three years leading up to Turner’s assault.)

The spokesperson did add that “the university is allocating $2.7 million in additional funds to add staff to all of our sexual assault training, prevention, adjudication and support programs.” In a June 8th press release, it states that this money “is the largest single allocation of new general funds in the university budget.”

But from Dauber’s perspective, all efforts the university has made towards fixing the assault problem have been purely in reaction to students, faculty, alumni and community leaders protesting and demanding change. “They don’t have any bragging rights,” Dauber said. “They have a long way to go.”

And nowhere in the university’s response to the case is an apology to Turner’s 23-year-old victim who was assaulted on campus and dragged through a traumatic court process, only to watch her abuser convicted and then given a relatively easy out.

“Students have a lot of faith in Stanford to protect them and keep them safe,” said Dauber. And in the absence of what she says is any real leadership from the university, she is trying, with the work of student activists, to continue the tough work of supporting victims when they’re in their darkest hours.

“I don’t think we can ever give up trying to make our campuses safer. Burnout is not an option,” she said. “Failure is not an option. We always have to be trying to make progress. Progress is going to be slow, sometimes so slow that it’s imperceptible, but we always have to be moving forward.”

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