Brock Turner was a Stanford University student athlete swimmer who was
convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault on January 18, 2015.
Mr. Turner, then a 19 year old freshman, encountered the victim, a 22
year old alumna of a different school, at a Kappa Alpha fraternity party.
Mr. Turner claimed to have met the victim, had a beer with her, kissed
her, then mutually agreed with her to go back to his room. Mr. Turner
then claimed that on the way back to his room, the victim slipped on a
slope behind a shed and fell to the ground. By his account, Mr. Turner
and the victim began to make out on the ground when he asked her if he
could digitally penetrate her, to which she verbally agreed. At this point,
Mr. Turner said that he got nauseous and got up to vomit when strangers
approached speaking to him, but he was unable to understand. The strangers
grabbed him, but he was able to break away and make a run for it. Mr.
Turner did not make it far though as he was subsequently tackled and arrested.
His blood alcohol content was 0.17%, which is more than twice the legal
limit for a person to drive, assuming that person is 21 in the first place.
The victim’s blood alcohol level was 0.24%, three times the legal
limit to drive.
The issue of consent – an often abstract and politicized concept
– raises inherent and significant challenges to determining which
version of the facts most closely reflects the truth. There is no clear
evidentiary compass like DNA to point to a guilty party where physical
contact is not at issue. Instead, problems like alcohol consumption, misunderstandings,
witness bias, or even poor lighting can result in dramatically differing
recollections of events. Unfortunately, the service of justices hinges
on hammering out a clear and factually accurate narrative by determining
what is true from a collection of both reliable and unreliable testimony.
First, alcohol consumption confuses the reasoning and the memory of said
reasoning afterward. Mr. Turner and the victim both had blood alcohol
levels that double and tripled the legal limit to drive, so their decision
making faculties would undoubtedly be impaired. Similarly, their memories
of the events would also be clouded and unclear. Mr. Turner’s victim
was essentially blackout drunk; she was unable to remember any of the
events leading up to Mr. Turner’s physical contact with her behind
the shed. When an individual’s cognitive function is so impaired
by alcohol, it is difficult to argue that he or she can consent to anything.
It may also be difficult for another intoxicated person to correctly distinguish
signs potentially indicating consent from simple drunken gestures. This
element of impairment casts shade on the reliability of testimony from
both Mr. Turner and the victim.
Thus, the case against Mr. Turner relied heavily on other witness accounts.
The victim’s sister testified to an entirely different set of fact
than those presented by Mr. Turner. Contrary to Mr. Turner’s account,
the victim’s sister testified that she observed no significant contact
or communication between Mr. Turner and the victim during the party. In
fact, she claimed that there were two instances where Mr. Turner, unknown
to either the victim or her sister, approached the victim and tried to
kiss her, but she physically withdrew from him. However, at a party where
everyone is consuming alcohol, it is possible that the victim’s
sister may also have been intoxicated, thus somewhat tarnishing the reliability
of her testimony. Further, the loud music of a party could have very much
hindered her ability to interpret the exchanges between Mr. Turner and
the victim, making her understanding of the contact between the two of
them potentially flawed. Finally, being the victim’s sister, she
clearly has an interest in siding with her own family over Mr. Turner.
She may be motivated to exaggerate or even just perceive the events from
a biased perspective from the start.
The two men who approached Mr. Turner and the victim behind the shed also
had an account conflicting with Mr. Turner’s version. These men
were Swedish grad students who were cycling through the area. They claimed
that when they approached the scene, they saw Mr. Turner on top of the
unconscious victim behind a dumpster. When they confronted him, he stood
up and ran away before they subdued him. In this situation, the two men
happened upon Mr. Turner and the victim in a dimly lit area behind a shed
in the dark hours of the morning and whatever they saw was perceived from
at least a standing distance. If the lighting was too dark to clearly
see what was happening, if they misheard key parts of important verbal
exchanges between Mr. Turner and the victim, or if the witnesses were
exhausted from cycling, there are possible problems with relying on this
Piecing together the truth is a challenge where parties have conflicting
stories, but it is the role of the court to definitively determine what
happened. It is important for the court to have the most reliable evidence
when the process of meting out justice is underway. However, it is ultimately
an inconvenient reality that truth is sometimes a matter of perspective.