'Inappropriately light sentences' in sexual assault cases can hurt reporting of future crimes: Experts

Sentences can impact the way the public views sexual assault cases, experts say.

December 20, 2018, 4:59 AM

The outcry over a recent plea deal that allowed a former Baylor University fraternity president accused of sexually assaulting a woman to avoid jail time has advocates pointing to similar cases and criticizing overly lenient sentences for men who attack women.

Jacob Walter Anderson was indicted on sexual assault charges after his victim, who has not been publicly identified, accused him of repeatedly raping her and gagging and choking her at a 2016 frat party, a claim which his lawyers dispute. In the end, Anderson pleaded no contest earlier this month to the lesser charge of unlawful restraint, and agreed to go to counseling and pay a $400 fine.

Part of the outrage over Anderson's sentence was that he will not have to register as a sex offender or serve any jail time.

For some advocates, the Anderson case drew instant parallels to those of Brock Turner and Owen Labrie. Turner, a Stanford University swimmer, was sentenced to six months in prison after he was found guilty of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in 2015. Labrie, a student at a New Hampshire prep school, was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl on campus in 2014 after a highly publicized trial.

PHOTO: Brock Turner, 21, is released from jail in Santa Clara County, California, Sept. 2, 2016.
Brock Turner, 21, is released from jail in Santa Clara County, California, Sept. 2, 2016.
Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group via AP Photo

Turner ended up serving three months of a six-month sentence, and Labrie just had his motion for an amended sentence denied this week.

Carole Alfano, the New Hampshire court system spokeswoman, confirmed to ABC News that Labrie must report to jail and begin serving the remaining nine months of his year-long sentence the day after Christmas.

'Inappropriately light sentences'

All three sentences were criticized by victims and advocacy groups as being overly lenient for sexual crimes. But aside from letting the perpetrators walk free or serve minimal jail time, such sentences can also send a message to victims that it is not worth trying to go through the justice system, experts say.

Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said that sentences are "interpreted by many people as a value of the claim, and that's why light sentences feel so egregious because it's saying, 'This particular rape complaint isn't as bad as these other ones.'"

Public frustration with what are interpreted to be "inappropriately light sentences" for certain sexual assault cases "is a common issue that we deal with," said John Wilkinson, an attorney adviser for AEquitas, a nonprofit focused on prosecution practices related to gender-based violence.

"They're trying to get away with it and when you have lenient sentences, it sends the message to the perpetrator that they can get away with it," Wilkinson said. "It sends the message to the victims that it's not worth reporting it, and those are terrible messages to send."

"Sexual violence is already one of the most, if not the most, under-reported crimes, and this is just going to drive it deeper," he added.

'Why would they bother?'

In her official response to Anderson's plea agreement, the victim wrote to Judge Ralph Strother that she was "devastated" by his decision.

"Rape is a violent crime that alters the victim's life and the life of everyone around them forever. He stole many things from me the night he raped me. I will never be the same again," she wrote.

She also raised the possibility that other victims would not report assaults after seeing the way she was treated.

"I reported this rape immediately ... I had to repeat the facts and relive that night over and over again so that the justice system could do their job," she wrote.

"I wonder if other women in Waco will report their rapes if Jacob Anderson gets this plea? Why would they bother?" she added.

For their part, Anderson's lawyers, Mark Daniel and Tim Moore, sent ABC News a lengthy statement disputing the victim's account, saying in part that they have "never encountered a case with more misrepresentations concerning what actually occurred." Daniel and Moore detailed perceived discrepancies in the victim's testimony and in the evidence of the case, and concluded their statement by saying that the criticism of the judge and the assistant district attorney who was involved with the plea deal "is complete [sic] unfounded based on the facts and the truth."

'The seriousness has to be communicated clearly'

In the case of Brock Turner, he was released from jail in September 2016 after serving three months of his six-month sentence. Turner had to register as a sex offender and serve three years' probation.

Turner appealed the sentence and asked for a new trial. His attorney, Eric Multhaup, argued during their appeal that the initial jury based its decision on "speculation" that Turner's intent was rape, but in August, Turner lost his appeal and had his request for a new trial denied.

Multhaup did not respond to ABC News' request for comment for this story.

The victim in the Turner case wrote a 12-page impact statement that mentioned "leniency."

"As this is a first offense, I can see where leniency would beckon. On the other hand, as a society, we cannot forgive everyone's first sexual assault or digital rape. It doesn't make sense," she wrote. "The seriousness of rape has to be communicated clearly, we should not create a culture that suggests we learn that rape is wrong through trial and error."

The outrage over Turner's sentence ultimately took down the judge who handed it down. Michele Dauber is a Stanford University law professor who led the ultimately successful effort to recall Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.

"I think there is a long history of the legal system in general, both civil and criminal, not handling sexual violence and domestic violence correctly, and this is particularly true if the offender is privileged in some way. For example, being a private university student like Mr. Anderson at Baylor or Brock Turner at Stanford," Dauber told ABC News.

Persky did not respond to ABC News' request for comment for this story.

'It shows survivors people are listening'

When a perpetrator is held accountable and forced to serve time in jail, it can help victims feel vindicated, experts say.

Chessy Prout, now 20, came forward and publicly identified herself as the girl Labrie assaulted in 2015.

Prout has since written a book, "I Have the Right To," about her experiences.

Prout told The Boston Globe that this week's ruling against Labrie's motion for an amended sentence that would get him out of jail time is "important because it shows survivors that people are listening, even if it takes several years for a single case to be resolved."

Houser said that some of the difficulty in determining sentences or even creating standardized sentencing parameters stems from the fact that "there are so many different factors that judges want to weigh when deciding sentences."

"You end up with people wanting these really stringent things but you forget that you actually want flexibility to allow for reality," Houser said.

Some of that flexibility comes in looking at whether the defendant is a first-time offender. Considering a suspect's history in the sentencing process is common practice in most criminal cases. But just because someone hasn't committed a crime before doesn't mean there was a lack of intent in their actions, experts say.

"We want to believe that these are mistakes," Houser said. "And it is really ignoring the deliberate, strategic choices that people make in order to complete a sexual assault."