Brock Turner’s Conviction Sheds Light on Privilege

"Blind Lady Justice"

“Blind Lady Justice” / iStock

By Brian Pipkin

Brock Turner, white, no criminal history, is accused and charged with assaulting an unconscious woman; he called it “consensual.” Penalty? Six months in a county jail. (He will only serve three.)

Brian Blanks, Black, no criminal history, is accused of rape while insisting he did not commit a crime. Penalty? Forty-one years in prison. Black took a plea deal and served six years. (He was later exonerated after his accuser admitted to fabricating the story.)

Race. Is it still an issue? Absolutely. Especially within our judicial system. Is this an apples-to-apples comparison? Probably not, but it’s close. Whites, on average, experience sentences that are 20 percent shorter than those given Blacks guilty of the exact same crime. These racism realities are unchanged despite our denials or avoidances about race. Does a plea deal implicate guilt? Not even close. Today, as many as 95 percent of all felony cases are resolved through plea bargaining. Out of roughly 2.2 million incarcerated individuals in the US, 2 million never went to trial. Brian Blanks, like many other Black men and women take plea deals— despite innocence—to reduce lengthy sentences they would otherwise face going to trial.

Privilege is being innocent until proven guilty, a privilege afforded to many white people. But for many Black Americans, the experience is reversed: guilty until proven innocent.

Turner, 20, was ultimately convicted for “sexually assaulting” (not raping, though rape it was) an unconscious woman on Stanford’s campus and sentenced to six months in a county jail. The law provided for a minimum sentence of two years, with a maximum potential sentence of 14 years.  Judge Aaron Persky gave a much less severe sentence than what the law called for, explaining, “There is less moral culpability attached to the defendant, who was intoxicated.” He also explained that a harsher punishment would have left a “severe impact” on him. After being found guilty, Turner’s father, in a letter to the Judge, writes, “This is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of his life.”

Blanks told the New York Daily News that Turner’s sentence smacks of favoritism over the boy’s class and race. “I would say it’s a case of privilege,” says Blanks.

Judge Persky’s lenient ruling highlights that whiteness, gender, and class continue to be significant factors in the way individuals experience the justice system.

As Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears listen.”

Brian Pipkin is the Academic Affairs and Communications Administrator at Palmer Seminary of Eastern University, co-editor of Pentecostal and Holiness Statements on War and Peace (Pickwick) and Early Pentecostals on Nonviolence and Social Justice: A Reader (forthcoming, 2016). 

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