Justice Rising? A Pragmatic Look at the Stanford Rape Case (Peter Williams)

Today’s guest post comes from one of my former students at Bethel University, Peter Williams, who brings a unique perspective to one of the most controversial legal cases of the year. Now a Judge Advocate/attorney in the Minnesota National Guard, Peter currently serves as a Regional Special Victims’ Counsel for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, DC. In that role he is responsible for representing victims of sexual assault in the nine-state Midwest region throughout the military justice process. He also serves as the primary point of contact for training and program implementation within the region. The views expressed in this post are of the author only and in no way reflect the views or opinions of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the National Guard Bureau.

Main quad at Stanford University
Panoramic view of the main quad at Stanford University – Creative Commons (King of Hearts)

The Stanford rape case has been on the forefront of my mind the past few weeks. This is due, in large part, to the statement that was written by the victim in the case. Her now viral impact statement was heartbreaking, well-written and exceptionally powerful. As I read it, I was reminded of so many young women that have been in my office over the past three years sharing similarly heartbreaking accounts of their assaults. Yet for many of them there was no justice.

The facts of this case are unimaginable. There is no question in my opinion that a greater prison sentence was warranted. However, instead of being angry or frustrated at the things that did not happen, I want to focus some attention on what did happen that makes this case unique.

Reading all of the stories and coverage of this case, I took note of the angry tenor of the commentary. Why are we so angry at this sentence and subsequently the judge? Sexual assault happens far too frequently. Many sexual assault cases never see a court room let alone a conviction. So why did the reaction to this case initiate such a public and widespread anger?

Lady Justice over the Old Bailey
Iconic image of Lady Justice presiding over London’s Old Bailey – Creative Commons (James Burke)

If you break the sentence down, the judge was well within the grounds of the law to give the perpetrator the sentence he gave him. Moreover, he was simply following the advice that was given by probation. From his record and accounts of those who work with him, this judge appears to be very competent and well respected; the District Attorney, while vehemently disagreeing with the prison sentence, has come out in the judge’s defense. The perpetrator was convicted of three felonies. He has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He will lose many privileges that Americans enjoy but felons do not. He will never be able to run from the crimes he committed, and he will forever be enshrined on the wall of infamy via social media.

Even considering what his punishment is and how it will forever impact his life, I am still angry. As an attorney, but more importantly as a father, husband, and American I am angry. I know that most Americans join me in that anger. The question that remains is why?

Are we angry because a perpetrator got a lenient jail sentence after being convicted of committing a heinous crime? Or are we angry because that perpetrator was from the right socioeconomic class and was on an athletic scholarship at a prestigious university? I wonder what the jail sentence would have been had the perpetrator been from the local community college, or just a lower income kid that never went to college. My hope is that the result would have been the same, but my fear is that it would not have been.

In reality we will never know the answer to those questions. This case gives us a wonderful opportunity to have honest and frank discussions about our system of justice. It gives us an opportunity and platform to look at the system that allowed this to happen and to advocate for its change. As outrage focused around the leniency of the sentence, particularly the duration of prison time, I felt the anger on the judge misplaced. The primary problem here wasn’t a lenient judge, but a system that allowed for this leniency. The law and sentencing guidelines allowed the judge to reduce the sentence to this degree. It is fair to remember that the prosecutor only asked for six years jail time. To me that is still far too short for a crime of this nature. I think the judge got it wrong. However, we need to broaden our attention to the justice system as a whole and not just focus on one man.

This case can be the vehicle for a frank national conversation on sexual assault and our justice system. Hopefully this will also shine some light on the thousands of cases that never go to trial or result in convictions because there were not two eyewitnesses that decided to stop and intervene.

Despite what I see as a flawed system and the anger it has provoked, through this case I see hope. I take comfort and encouragement in the fact that, however flawed, the justice system did work. Evidence was preserved, facts were presented, and witnesses were examined and vigorously cross-examined. At the end of the trial, the perpetrator was convicted beyond a reasonable doubt of three felonies. I am heartened and inspired by a victim who withstood incredible scrutiny and hardship to write an incredible impact statement that has captivated a nation and spurred vital conversation. I am encouraged by the two men that were simply riding their bikes across campus and heroically put their comfort and safety in jeopardy to intervene and help the victim. Without their actions and testimony we likely have no conviction and this case never makes national headlines. Perhaps most encouraging is the national conversation happening about the epidemic of sexual assault in our society and what needs to happen to change both culture and prosecution to halt it.

So while the jail sentence was far too lenient, I am choosing to see a positive result from this case. For all sexual assault victims who saw their perpetrator walk out of the courtroom a free person or never even face a trial and who live in fear of that person every day, I pray this gives them a glimmer of hope and gives those suffering in silence the courage to speak up. While this particular perpetrator may not spend his life in jail, he will spend his life with the shackles of what he did firmly around his neck.

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