Brock Turner: No Responsibility, No Redemption

09 Aug 2016

Remember Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer-cum- rapist? There was outrage a few months ago when he was sentenced to a mere six months for raping an unconscious woman. He was eligible to be sentenced to 14 years; prosecutors requested six years. (We previously discussed some terrible comments made by Turner’s father in a misguided appeal for clemency.) It has recently come to my attention that Turner was back in the news, albeit under most people’s radar. It came out that his already-lenient sentence was being reduced to three months due to “good behavior.” It should be noted that the original sentence angered the population to the point that over a million people signed a petition calling for Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky to be ousted from his position. Cutting it in half doesn’t make it better.

One can quibble about the intended purpose of incarceration. Is it punitive? Rehabilitative? To protect the public? Whatever the case, it is hoped that recidivism is to be avoided. To that end, it is imperative that offenders accept responsibility for their actions. This is something that Turner never did.

Rather than accepting responsibility, Turner took the “society is to blame” route, stating, “Before this happened, I never had any trouble with law enforcement… I’ve been shattered by the party culture and risk taking behavior that I briefly experienced in my four months at school.” (For the record, Turner had a history of drug use dating back to high school and was arrested in 2014 for underage possession of alcohol but whatever.)

Turner also focused on how his actions affected himself, rather than his victim, lamenting “I’ve lost my ability to obtain a Stanford degree. I’ve lost employment opportunity, my reputation and most of all, my life. These things force me to never want to put myself in a position where I have to sacrifice everything.”

In his statement to the court, Turner does acknowledge that he inflicted “emotional and physical stress” on his victim (“stress” being somewhat of an understatement; how about “trauma?”) but he never actually apologizes for his actions. The extent of his remorse is, “I never want to have a drop of alcohol again. I never want to attend a social gathering that involves alcohol or any situation where people make decisions based on the substances they have consumed. I never want to experience being in a position where it will have a negative impact on my life or someone else’s ever again.”

Similarly, the extent of Turner’s rehabilitation (as he sees it) is, “I want to show that people’s lives can be destroyed by drinking and making poor decisions while doing so. One needs to recognize the influence that peer pressure and the attitude of having to fit in can have on someone. One decision has the potential to change your entire life. I know I can impact and change people’s attitudes towards the culture surrounded by binge drinking and sexual promiscuity that protrudes through what people think is at the core of being a college student. I want to demolish the assumption that drinking and partying are what make up a college lifestyle.”

Me, me, me. Turner sees himself as a victim and mourns how college’s wicked, wicked culture has ruined him. His victim is mere collateral damage.

Despite this attitude, Judge Persky sentenced Turner to a jail term that many considered even less than a slap on the wrist. Here’s how the judge interpreted Turner’s remorse:

“And so you have Mr. Turner expressing remorse, which I think, subjectively, is genuine, and [the victim] not seeing that as a genuine expression of remorse because he never says, ‘I did this. I knew how drunk you were. I knew how out of it you were, and I did it anyway.’ And that – I don’t think that bridge will, probably, ever be crossed.”

And so, Judge Persky decided that six months was punishment enough, as any more would have a “severe impact” on Turner. The victim, however, called the sentence “a soft timeout, a mockery of the seriousness of his assaults, an insult to me and all women.”

I would like to contrast this with a case well-known in the Jewish community. In 2011, Wendy Runge was sentenced to ten years for allegedly attempting to defraud the state of Iowa. During the course of the trial, she maintained a blog where she asserted her innocence. At sentencing, Judge Douglas Staskal held the blog against her, saying “you have not taken responsibility for what you did.” Of course she didn’t – she says she didn’t do it! Nevertheless, he sentenced a non-violent first offender to ten years for being “arrogant and defiant.” His justification for doing so was “to send a message to you and others who would engage in this kind of behavior that it’s not accepted.”

If failure to accept responsibility justifies such a harsh sentence in the case of a nonviolent first- offender who maintains her innocence, what justifies overlooking it when someone admits he committed a violent crime but blames it on “party culture?”

Accepting responsibility counts for a lot. It can mean the difference between keeping and losing a kingdom. In I Samuel chapter 13, King Saul was ordered to wait for the prophet Samuel to offer a sacrifice. Saul’s troops were getting antsy so he jumped the gun and took action before Samuel’s arrival. When questioned, he justified his actions rather than admitting that he had erred. This cost him the possibility of a dynasty.

In chapter 15, when commanded to eradicate the nation of Amalek down to the flocks, Saul kept the choicest animals (and the Amalekite king, Agag) alive. Again, when confronted with his misdeed, Saul justified instead of accepting responsibility. This cost him the throne personally.

Contrast this with the case of King David, who was intimate with a married woman and, unable to cover up his actions, had her soldier husband sent to the front lines, where he was killed in battle. When called out by the prophet Nathan, David’s immediate reaction was to declare, “I have sinned against God!” The prophet informed David that, because he took responsibility for his actions, his life would be spared. (See II Samuel chapter 12.)

This is not to say that accepting responsibility removes all consequences. While David’s life was spared, the baby produced by the union with Batsheva died (a theological implication beyond the scope of this piece). Even Achan, the looter in the Book of Joshua, benefitted from accepting responsibility. Yes, he was executed but our Sages explain that taking ownership of his actions enabled Achan to secure a place in the Next World. (Read more about Achan and taking responsibility here.)

We believe redemption is possible, even for violent criminals like rapists and murderers. Brock Turner is probably not a monster. He’s probably just a kid who got so wrapped up in his own entitlement that he did a horrible thing to another person with no regard for her safety or consent. The proper response in such a case is to accept responsibility, to apologize, and to do one’s best to make amends. The damage to the victim can never be fully undone, and there will still be consequences to pay, but accepting responsibility is the first step on the road to redemption.

A ridiculously light sentence with no apology and without accepting responsibility is more than an insult to the victim; it reinforces Turner’s worldview with himself as victim. He may serve his time (such as it is) and he may live with the consequences of his actions (loss of scholarship, placement on the sex-offender registry, etc.). It’s also possible that he may go on to live a squeaky-clean life and never re-offend – and that would be great. But unless he takes responsibility for what he did, how can he ever be redeemed for it?

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.