It Takes Turner

IT TAKES TURNER: HOW STORIES SHAPE US

By: Maisie Baldwin, Volume 101 Staff Member

Anyone who’s been on any form of social media since early 2015 has likely read Brock Turner’s name. His name has come up in a variety of contexts: evidence of the continued existence of white privilege,[1] outrage regarding rape culture,[2] discussion about the role of the collegiate Greek system,[3] scrutiny of college athletics,[4] and questions about the consequences (or lack thereof) for sexual assault.[5] Following reports by two Swedish PhD students, who had intervened when they first noticed Turner sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, the case received further attention.[6] The media closely followed the criminal charges while they unfolded. Many outlets released statements by both parties,[7] including a powerful statement written and read in court by the survivor.[8]

A significant amount of focus was also given to the outcome of the case. Brock Turner, who was convicted of three felonies by a jury, was ultimately sentenced to only six months of jail time.[9] Of that, he served only three.[10] Media reports reflected a national sense of incredulity regarding the sentence.[11] At the same time, certain other outlets reminded critics that Turner’s sentence was longer than ninety-seven percent of accused rapists.[12]

The result of Turners’ trial led to important conversations nationwide about criminal sentencing, particularly the ability of judges to exercise discretion after a jury’s determination of guilt. This public backlash eventually incited legislative change. California’s sentencing laws for sexual assault now include mandatory minimums for assaults committed while the victim was unconscious or intoxicated.[13]

This case epitomizes the impact that the media—including less formal social media channels—has on public perceptions about the justice system. Non-traditional media outlets were quick to criticize how more mainstream media sources framed the case:[14] Turner was labeled a “Stanford swimmer” in lieu of being labeled a “rapist.” Traditional media sources circulated images of Turner in a suit, smiling at the camera before non-traditional sources argued that Turner’s mug shot should have been used in its stead.[15] Non-traditional media sources also raised the issue of how more mainstream media outlets treat alleged criminals differently based on race.[16]

Turner’s case, though, reveals a greater truth about how American society consumes justice: stories matter. Empirical data can help animate our opinions, but it seems that the largest and most sweeping changes of public opinion are driven by anecdotes. It is not enough to know that less than three percent of rapists ever face jail time.[17] We need a Brock Turner; we need a story so gut-wrenching that the current law seems intolerable. We need a narrative in order to understand what the law really is and evaluate “justice.”

The central role of storytelling in the judicial system should not come as a surprise. After all, many lawyers strive to tell stories to jurors throughout trial.[18] They aim to present a version of “what happened” that best achieves their goal. Jurors don’t want to hear jumbled, disconnected statements: they want to hear a clear narrative from start to finish. They want discrepancies explained and questions answered.

This is not a coincidence. Sociological and psychological research reveals that the human brain simply does a better job understanding and feeling empathy for personal stories as opposed to hard data.[19] It’s why the estimated 100,000 children who are facing a humanitarian crisis in Aleppo[20] seem less tangible than Omran Daqneesh, the boy whose image has captured American political discourse since publication.[21] It’s why stories about the undocumented worker raid in Postville, Iowa successfully generated discourse about immigration policy where data hadn’t done so.[22] It’s why visibility of LGBTQ+ folks has had such an impact on the same-sex marriage debate and public opinion about LGBTQ+ individuals more broadly.[23] It all comes down to one fundamental truth: stories trump statistics—at least in the court of public opinion (and likely in actual courtrooms as well).

But knowing the power of anecdotes to affect changes is not sufficient. To paraphrase Spiderman, with the great power of storytelling also comes great responsibility—responsibility to frame the stories accurately, and to keep statistical data in mind. We must not use narratives as a sole basis for policy changes, but rather to animate our discussion; to make the statistics come to life.

It was easy to view Brock Turner’s case as a failing: a failing of the judge to impose a fair sentence, a failing of California state laws to ensure that such a heinous crime was punished more severely, and a failing of society to sufficiently condemn such behavior. For me, however, the case represented a few key successes. The case served as a common denominator from which vital discourse came. The public discussed mandatory minimum sentences, sexual assault laws, reporting rates of sexual assault, and how the media may skew coverage in an attempt to elicit more sympathy for some defendants than others. And while it may be unfortunate that it takes such extreme stories to start these conversations, it is both powerful and bewildering that stories can have such a profound impact.

  1. Web Editors, Brock Turner: When Rape Culture Meets White Privilege, Sojourners (Sept. 2, 2016), https://sojo.net/articles/brock-turner-when-rape-culture-meets-white-privilege.
  2. Sam Levin & Julia Carrie Wong, Brock Turner’s Statement Blames Sexual Assault on Stanford “Party Culture”, The Guardian, June 7, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/07/brock-turner-statement-stanford-rape-case-campus-culture.
  3. Elizabeth Dwoskin & Susan Svrluga, “We’re Horrified”: At Stanford, the Impact of a Sexual Assault Is Searing, Wash. Post, June 9, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/were-horrified-at-stanford-the-impact-of-a-sexual-assault-is-searing/2016/06/09/6628dc08-2e85-11e6-b5db-e9bc84a2c8e4_story.html.
  4. Bob Cook, Brock Turner’s Dad Reveals How Rape Culture Seeds Get Planted in Youth Sports, Forbes (June 6, 2016), http://www.forbes.com/sites/bobcook/2016/06/06/brock-turners-dad-reveals-how-rape-culture-seeds-get-planted-in-youth-sports/#1b0205847cd6.
  5. Danielle Paquette, What Makes the Stanford Sex Offender’s Six Month Jail Sentence So Unusual, Wash. Post, June 6, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/06/06/what-makes-the-stanford-sex-offenders-six-month-jail-sentence-so-unusual.
  6. Ema O’Connor, In Their Words: The Swedish Heroes Who Caught the Stanford Sexual Assailant, BuzzFeed News (June 7, 2016), https://www.buzzfeed.com/emaoconnor/meet-the-two-swedish-men-who-caught-brock-turner?utm_term=.dvYKR3KeE#.em4gJrgpd.
  7. Jason Wells & Ema O’Connor, Stanford Sexual Assailant’s Father Says His Son Has Paid Heavily “for 20 Minutes of Action”, BuzzFeed News (June 6, 2016), https://www.buzzfeed.com/jasonwells/stanford-swimmers-father-says-his-son-has-paid-heavily-for-2?utm_term=.hddLqzLpr#.tuX0XG0yJ.
  8. Katie J.M. Baker, Here Is the Powerful Letter the Stanford Victim Read Aloud to Her Attacker, BuzzFeed News (June 3, 2016), https://www.buzzfeed.com/katiejmbaker/heres-the-powerful-letter-the-stanford-victim-read-to-her-ra?utm_term=.sn6e6zeRM#.fazoAXo2D.
  9. Victor Xu, Brock Turner Sentenced to Six Months in County Jail, Three Years Probation, Stanford Daily, June 2, 2016, http://www.stanforddaily.com/2016/06/02/brock-turner-sentenced-to-six-months-in-county-jail-three-years-probation.
  10. Emanuella Grinberg, Brock Turner To Leave Jail After Serving 3 Months for Sexual Assault, CNN (Sept. 1, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/01/us/brock-turner-release.
  11. See, e.g., Nick Visser, Judge Who Sentenced Brock Turner Quits Criminal Court, Huffington Post (Aug. 26, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/judge-aaron-persky-brock-turner_us_57bfadf2e4b02673444f8028 (describing the backlash that Turner’s sentencing judge faced after handing down the six-month sentence).
  12. Stassa Edwards, Brock Turner Will Spend More Time in Jail Than 97 Percent of Rapists, Jezebel (June 7, 2016), http://jezebel.com/brock-turner-will-spend-more-time-in-jail-than-97-perce-1781032260.
  13. Jazmine Ulloa, Spurred by Brock Turner Case, Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Laws To Toughen Laws Against Rape, L.A. Times, Sept. 30, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-california-sex-crimes-stanford-cosby-bills-20160930-snap-htmlstory.html. For a critique of this legislative response, see Alexandra Brodsky & Claire Simonich, Helping Rape Victims After the Brock Turner Case, N.Y. Times, Aug. 11, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/opinion/rape-victims-deserve-better-mandatory-minimums-wont-help.html.
  14. Naomi LaChance, Media Continues To Refer to Brock Turner as a “Stanford Swimmer” Rather Than a Rapist, The Intercept (Sept. 2, 2016), https://theintercept.com/2016/09/02/media-continues-to-refer-to-brock-turner-as-a-stanford-swimmer-rather-than-a-rapist.
  15. Amanda Chan, White Privilege Is Convicted Rapist Brock Turner’s Mug Shot Not Being Released Until Now, Teen Vogue (June 6, 2016), http://www.teenvogue.com/story/brock-allen-turner-mug-shot-released.
  16. German Lopez, The Media’s Racial Double Standard in Covering Sexual Assault Cases, in 2 Tweets, Vox (June 6, 2016), http://www.vox.com/2016/6/6/11871228/brock-turner-rape-race.
  17. 97 Out of Every 100 Rapists Receive No Punishment, RAINN Analysis Shows, RAINN (Mar. 27, 2012), https://www.rainn.org/news/97-every-100-rapists-receive-no-punishment-rainn-analysis-shows.
  18. In fact, there are webpages dedicated to compiling resources for lawyers to learn how to become better storytellers. See, e.g., Ken Lopez, The Litigation Consulting Report: 20 Great Courtroom Storytelling Articles from Trial Experts, A2L Consulting (Mar. 7, 2013), http://www.a2lc.com/blog/bid/63423/20-Great-Courtroom-Storytelling-Articles-from-Trial-Experts.
  19. Paul J. Zak, Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, Harv. Bus. Rev. Online (Oct. 28, 2014), https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling.
  20. Rick Gladstone, Why So Many Children Are Being Killed in Aleppo, N.Y. Times, Sept. 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/28/world/middleeast/syria-aleppo-children.html.
  21. Chandrika Narayan, Little Boy in Aleppo a Vivid Reminder of War’s Horror, CNN World (Aug. 18, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/17/world/syria-little-boy-airstrike-victim.
  22. Jens Manuel Krogstad, Iowa Raid Helps Shape Immigration Debate, USA Today, May 9, 2013, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/05/09/iowa-raid-helps-shape-immigration-debate/2149039.
  23. “Glee,” “Modern Family,” and Other LGBT-Themed TV Shows Drive Gay Marriage Support: Poll, Huffington Post (Feb. 2, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/05/glee-modern-family-hollywood-reporter-gay-tv-poll_n_2077149.html.
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