Judge in Brock Turner sexual assault case defends his controversial sentencing ahead of recall vote

Aaron Persky is speaking out one week before voters decide if he should be removed over his handling of a sexual assault trial. The California judge gave former Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner a short jail term after Turner was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. The sentence generated global outrage and raised questions about judicial independence and politics in the courtroom.

Persky has remained largely silent as the campaign to remove him from the bench has built over nearly two years. But now, in his only television interview, he defended the sentence that has been so widely condemned.

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Judge Aaron Persky

CBS News

"If a judge is thinking in the back of his or her mind how is this going to look? How will it look on social media? Will I be vilified on cable news? That's the wrong avenue. We can't do that. We shouldn't do that," Persky told CBS News' John Blackstone.

Persky's sentencing of Turner meant the former Stanford University swimmer walked free after spending just three months in county jail. He said he knew the sentence would generate controversy.

"And by my ethical constraints by the rule of law, I had to completely tune that out," Persky said.

In court, Turner heard the words of his victim, a powerful statement that was widely shared on social media. "You took away my worth, my privacy ... my confidence," she told Turner. "I don't want my body anymore. I was terrified of it."

"If this case were before you today, the #MeToo movement being what it is, might you have been more sensitive to the feelings of the society around you?" Blackstone asked.

"Well, let me say again based on the code of judicial ethics, I can't really discuss the details of the case or my decision making," Persky replied. "But I can say that generally, the answer is absolutely not."

His sentencing of Turner followed the recommendation of the county probation department. The California Commission on Judicial Performance concluded there is "not clear and convincing evidence of bias ... or … judicial misconduct."

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Brock Turner

"When we make a decision in a civil or criminal case, we're always disappointing one side or the other. And so if one side or the other that's disappointed is able to generate outrage, get it out there on social media, raise a lot of money based on one decision, it's just – it's just not right," Persky said.  

More than one million people signed an online petition calling for Persky's removal from the bench. The campaign to recall the judge has raised more than $1 million and he has raised $400,000 to fight back.

"There are even lawn signs now that have my face next to a mug shot of the defendant," Persky said. "I accept responsibility for every decision that I've made as a judge. But what I cannot accept are the downstream consequences, the collateral damage, if you will, to the next case, to the next judge's decision, to even the next juror's decision. I mean this notion, the power of social media, the power of politics, if it affects jurors then where are we? We've completely corrupted our system."

For weeks after he sentenced Turner, Persky said for safety he had to come and go from this courthouse by the back entrance used by inmates. Since the recall effort began, he has not been hearing cases, he's working only as a judge in night court.