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Monday, June 13, 2016

The Stanford rape case. How can we learn from it.

For those unfamiliar with the case the basic facts are that a 19 yr-old Stanford swimmer, at the end of a party, found a woman lying on the ground unconscious and proceeded to do something on top of her when he was discovered by two students bicycling by. They chased him and he was apprehended and initially charged with rape until DNA evidence revealed it didn’t meet the criteria for rape; i.e., she had been penetrated by a foreign object, in this case his finger (hence the sex offender label for the perpetrator.) Note that technically what the student did was not rape but sexual assault (there was no penile penetration which is required for rape under California law.)

Instead of rushing to judgment on this individual case, our society needs a serious and unemotional discussion of a wide assortment of issues and questions. I note some below.

What role should universities play in adjudicating issues between students and non-students. Isn’t rape far too serious a crime to be left to faculty who have no subpoena or investigatory powers. Are they consistent in their punishments? Is there another case of a student being banned for life from Stanford for a similar crime? Was it a pre-existing policy or one invented for the moment and because of public pressure?

We need to have a serious discussion and examination of why we put people in prison. Someone once said that in the United States we incarcerate those we don’t like rather than those we should be afraid of. How is society better served in this case by applying a ten year prison sentence as opposed to a six-month, or one-year, or whatever. What rationale is used to determine the best length of sentence? Do we accept as a societal value that people can change or do we assume that once a bad actor, always a bad actor.
What role did the wealth of the parents and their ability to hire a fancy lawyer have in the sentencing? If the fellow had been black would the outcome have been very different?

How can we design trials so that victims aren’t revictimized during the trial? On the other hand, the Supreme Court had prohibited the use of victim impact statements in capital cases as interfering with due process, a decision that was reversed in 1991. How do we balance the rights of the accused with those of the victim and remove emotion from what should be an impartial judicial proceeding?

Far too little has been said about the movement to remove the judge because of the perceived “injustice” of the sentence. Liberals for years have railed against conservatives trying to remove judges and justices (successfully in Iowa) for unpopular decisions. How is that different here? If the sentence was wrong, the California ethics commission should deal with it, not a bunch of pitchfork-laden petitioners.

Are we applying the “sex-offender” label too broadly thus removing important distinctions between youthful stupidity and serial child molesters (the Catholic Church has gotten off extremely lightly, for example.) Go to a sex offender map of your hometown and you will be astounded by their prevalence yet few details. Is punishment intended to be perpetual?

We all too often overlook the role of alcohol in crime. Apparently, both people involved were hammered. Would events have been different had either one or both had less to drink? I suspect so and two lives would have followed a very different course. It’s time for society to stop setting the example of having fun only when drunk.

Unfortunately, the case has been used by zealots of all variety to manipulate the facts of the case to their own advantage (to raise money among other things.) This serves neither the victim nor society. The judge's ruling was actually more severe that that imposed by a Utah judge on a man convicted of raping two fully conscious women. What role did the Internet have in creating the outrage over the Stanford case?


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