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Texas judge who approved plea deal for alleged Baylor University rapist faces public backlash  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

The outcry over a light sentence handed to a former Baylor University fraternity president accused of rape has gotten him banned from his school.

The public outrage spurred nearly 100,000 people to sign a petition supporting the removal of the judge who approved a plea agreement that included no jail time.

By Sunday morning, more than 47,000 people had signed a petition for Judge Ralph Strother of McLennan County, Texas, to either resign or be removed from the bench after he accepted on Monday a deal that allowed Jacob Anderson to plea down to unlawful restraint, with deferred probation, counseling and a fine but no requirement he register as a sex offender.

Anderson, 23, had been charged with four counts of sexual assault after a 19-year-old sophomore accused of him of repeatedly raping her during a Phi Delta Theta fraternity party in 2016 while at Baylor.

Anderson was expelled from the Waco school and enrolled at the University of Texas at Dallas. On Wednesday, after more than 26,000 people signed a petition started by students to bar him from campus, school president Richard Benson complied, saying Anderson’s legal history was not known to administrators when they admitted him. He will still receive his diploma.

The case has garnered national attention while drawing parallels with the conviction of Brock Turner, the former Stanford swimmer who, in June 2016, was found guilty of sexual assault of an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party and was sentenced to six months in county jail. He served three months.

The sentence imposed by Judge Aaron Persky, in sharp contrast with prosecutors’ recommendation of six years in prison, inspired such furor that organizers collected more than 94,000 signatures supporting a movement to yank him off the bench. In June, Persky became the first California judge in 87 years to be recalled.

Judges are subject to a recall election in California but not in Texas, where the mechanisms for removal don’t include an option for citizens’ action. The four alternatives involve a state commission, the state Supreme Court, the legislature and/or the governor.

Still, former prosecutor and current defense attorney Chris Boscia said Strother isn't safe because enough pressure on elected officials could spur action to get rid of the judge. The law firm Boscia now works for, McManis Faulkner in San Jose, defended Persky as he tried to retain his post, although Boscia was only marginally involved in the case.

“Do I think it’s possible that what happened to Judge Persky could happen to these people? Absolutely,’’ Boscia said, referring to Strother and McLennan County Assistant District Attorney Hilary LaBorde, who prosecuted the Anderson case. “But there’s not enough information out in the public sphere for people to make an intelligent decision about it.’’

Lara Bazelon, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and a former public defender, echoed Boscia: “Given what happened in California with Brock Turner, it would not surprise me" if Strother is removed from the bench.

Bazelon also took issue with LaBorde and the DA’s office for failing to inform the victim, whose name has been kept confidential, of the agreement with Anderson’s lawyers. The accuser and her family found out through a local newspaper.

In a letter to the accuser, LaBorde said that she was concerned jurors would blame the victim instead of the defendant because there had been no previous such accusations against him and that a similar case LaBorde prosecuted did not result in a conviction. The accuser said in her victim impact statement that she was incensed that LaBorde did not appear at Monday’s hearing.

In a statement after the plea deal was accepted, LaBorde said, “Conflicting evidence and statements exist in this case making the original allegation difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.’’

Neither Strother nor LaBorde responded to messages from USA TODAY.

“It’s a pretty oblique statement, so we don’t know what facts are in dispute. We don’t know what they mean by conflicting statements. We’re just left mystified,’’ Bazelon said. “It was handled so terribly, the way they treated the victim and just the optics.’’

However, Bazelon pointed out that a prosecutor’s job is to seek justice for all, not necessarily to advocate for the accuser.

Rich Plansky, who prosecuted sexual crimes in Manhattan for nine years and is now the global head of investigations for Exiger in New York, said such cases are difficult to pursue because oftentimes there are no third-party witnesses or physical evidence and, in many instances, alcohol and drugs are involved. That makes the nuanced concept of consent harder to ascertain, meaning some cases may turn on the credibility of the parties.

Plansky was struck by LaBorde’s explanation that the accuser’s allegations would be hard to prove, saying all such cases are.

“Most sex-crimes prosecutors would tell you that the fact a case is difficult to prove is not in and of itself a good reason for not proceeding with it,’’ Plansky said. “If you have a victim who you find credible and you believe she was in fact a victim, and she’s cooperative and understands the risk of going to trial, then that should be given very serious consideration.’’

Moreover, Plansky noted that one of the purposes of the criminal justice system is to offer victims an opportunity to be heard, which the accuser in this case clearly wanted, he said.

In a powerful victim impact statement, the unnamed accuser said she was “devastated’’ that Anderson escaped harsher punishment after he “violently and repeatedly’’ raped her.

“I have to live with the fact that my rapist will go home smiling and happy and laughing at me,’’ she wrote to the court. “He stole my body, virginity and power over my body and you let him keep it for all eternity.’’

Still, Plansky warned against the public passing judgment when they don’t know all of the facts.

“One of the difficult parts of the job is they’re making decisions based on information that, almost by definition, cannot be publicly available, so the judgment of their decisions can sometimes be unfair," Plansky said. "The public isn’t seeing everything the prosecutor’s seeing.’’

Lisa Houle, a longtime deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County who’s now in private practice as a defense lawyer, argued that the victim had her day in court because she was able to express herself through the impact statement.

Though the accuser’s desire to go to trial is taken into consideration, Houle said it’s up to the prosecutor to make that decision, and the lack of DNA proof and conclusive physical evidence likely came into play.

Strother, who was re-elected, without opposition, to a four-year term in November 2016, told KWKT in Waco he has received death threats over the plea deal. On Monday, Strother said he read letters mailed to him about the case and also social media comments, adding that many came from people who are “not fully informed, misinformed or totally uninformed.’’

One criticism that has emerged about Strother, a Baylor alumnus, is his recent history of agreeing to lenient sentences in two cases of men accused of raping female Baylor students.

Houle doesn’t buy it.

“People are saying there’s a pattern, that he’s gone lightly on prior Baylor graduates in these types of cases, but I think the flip side is he may be accepting the prosecutions’ offer because those cases also had problems of proof, like this one,’’ Houle said.

“It’s always easy to cast aspersions in difficult cases like this where the public is outraged. But judges do generally want to make the right decision. I don’t think they get into this job to let rapists go free.’’

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