In an ideal world, the Brock Turner case would have led to greater awareness of racial and socioeconomic disparities in sentencing as well as reflection on how the criminal justice system treats victims of sexual assault. Alas, that has not happened. Instead the judge in the case - who was apparently well- regarded previously - has received death threats and is now facing a recall effort. Some commentators are calling for radical shifts in how criminal defense attorneys perform their jobs, even though Turner's attorneys are not alleged to have acted overzealously. Others are pushing for initiatives that they have decried in contexts other than sexual assault. There seems to be some confusion even as to the basic facts of the case.
Although Turner's sentence struck me as far too lenient, my only contribution to this maelstrom is to suggest that, if we are to have these important debates online, everyone involved needs to be especially scrupulous about disclosing possible biases and conflicts of interest. This is especially the case for academics, who, while certainly entitled to their own personal views and opinions, are often relied upon by the media for their legal expertise. Alas, that too has not happened.
Stanford Law Professor Michele Landis Dauber is a family friend of Turner's victim. She put the victim in touch with one of the producers of the controversial film Hunting Ground, who recommended that the victim's powerful letter be released to Buzzfeed. As reported by the New York Times, Professor Dauber was also the first to highlight extremely offensive language in the letter written by Brock Turner's father and is now leading the effort to recall the judge in the case.
Professor Dauber has every right to advocate for the victim in this case and to criticize the judge's treatment of her. Indeed, my understanding is that she has long been concerned with the legal system's and universities' mishandling of sexual assaults. The problem is that her connection to the victim and central role in publicizing the case has not been reported in many of stories I have read, including the Times story referenced above. Other examples can be found here, here, and here. Consequently, when Professor Dauber claims in the Times that the judge "had misapplied the law by granting Mr. Turner probation and by taking his age, academic achievement and alcohol consumption into consideration" it is unclear whether she is offering her expert opinion on California's sentencing laws or speaking as a friend and advocate for the victim. In a similar vein, the public is likely to regard a recall campaign led by a concerned law professor very differently than a campaign started by a friend of the family. For a short take on the problem with such campaigns, read here.
Law professors should criticize aspects of the legal system that we consider unjust. But when the criticism derives not only from our knowledge of the system but also a personal connection to a particular case, that needs to be fully acknowledged. Public understanding of the law is not furthered when it is unclear from which perspective law professors are speaking.