This week, news that a former University of Colorado student will not spend time in prison despite being convicted of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman seemed to echo the Brock Turner case at Stanford.
On the surface, it seemed like another white, privileged college kid with an all-American name had gotten off easy: convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, Turner was sentenced to six months in jail.
The Turner case dominated the news cycle in early June, particularly after the victim’s powerful, graphic impact statement—originally published in BuzzFeed after Turner’s sentencing—went viral. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield choked back tears while reading the entire statement aloud on broadcast television.
Congress set aside a full hour during which 19 members—Republican and Democrat, male and female—took turns reading the victim’s letter to her assailant. Judge Aaron Persky was widely and loudly condemned for Turner’s six month jail sentence by everyone from Vice President Joe Biden to Channing Tatum and Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY).
Despite its similarities, the Boulder case has not—yet at least—garnered the same volume of headlines and outraged national attention.
In May, a jury found 22-year-old Austin Wilkerson guilty on one count of sexual assault of a “helpless” victim—a felony crime that carries up to a 12-year prison sentence—and one count of unlawful sexual contact.
Though Turner was convicted on three felony charges including intent to rape, Wilkerson’s crime was similar to Turner’s in that he’d digitally penetrated the victim, a freshman at the university, while she was incapacitated by alcohol.
Prosecutors argued that he “isolated and raped the half-conscious victim.” District Judge Patrick Butler sentenced Wilkerson to two years in a jail work-release program, plus a minimum of 20 years probation uniquely for sex offenders.
Unlike Turner, who maintained that the incident was consensual after a jury found him guilty, Wilkerson confessed that he “digitally and orally penetrated” the woman while he “wasn’t getting much of a response from her.”
Unlike Turner, who blamed “party culture” at Stanford for circumstances that led to the assault, Wilkerson apologized for his crime before he was sentenced. “I sexually assaulted [the victim]… No words I can say could ever take away from the pain and fear that I have caused. Nothing I say can make it better, but I am so sorry.”
But Wilkerson changed his story on several occasions before admitting wrongdoing. At trial, he initially claimed the victim, now 21, wasn’t intoxicated and had participated “passionately” in their encounter in March 2014. He’d previously told a university investigator that he made “repeated advances on the victim, but that she rebuffed him each time,” and that he was “pissed off” and called the victim a “fucking bitch,” according to court documents.
A pre-sentence report recommended that Wilkerson get probation rather than jail time, but prosecutors sought a prison sentence.
“This defendant raped a helpless young woman after duping the people around her into believing he was going to care for her, tried to cover up his crime, and then repeatedly lied about what he did, including under oath,” they wrote to the judge before his decision.
Wilkerson’s roommate had seen him give the victim water and take both her pulse and temperature, according to court documents. After he assaulted the victim, he texted her friend “who then thanked him for caring for the victim,” prosecutors wrote.
The Probation Department recommended no prison time for Wilkerson based on his ultimate show of remorse, citing his “impressive acceptance” of responsibility, but prosecutors had requested four to 20 years in prison. Deputy District Attorney Lisa Saccomano argued that Wilkerson displayed a pattern of “highly deceptive, manipulative behavior.”
Reached by The Daily Beast on Friday, the district attorney’s office said they were not giving further interviews at this time. Wilkerson’s attorney, Michael Cohen, did not return a request for comment.
“It was a five-day display of arrogance, entitlement, privilege and blatant disregard for the role of law,” Deputy District Attorney Carolyn Gatz said during a pre-sentence report. “This defendant on the witness stand admitted he is willing to lie to gain an advantage to himself.”
Judge Butler conceded that he, too, was troubled by Wilkerson’s testimony.
“I do have some concerns over, as I would describe it as, ways he tried to play the system,” Butler said in court.
The judge also said he had “struggled, to be frank, with the idea of ‘Do I put him in prison?’”
He noted that under Colorado law, Wilkerson wouldn’t have been released until he was deemed fit, which means that even a very short prison sentence could become a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
“Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”
Here, too, Judge Butler echoed Judge Aaron Persky, whose lenient sentence inspired a recall election campaign to unseat him.
“In most of these cases, you do not have things that are present in the Turner case,” Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and family friend of Turner’s victim who is leading the recall campaign, told The Daily Beast. “You don’t have three felony convictions by a jury. You do not have DNA evidence. You don’t have the perpetrator apprehended at the scene with an erection in his pants.
“This guy is guilty in a hundred different ways. If [six months in jail] is the sentence for a case like that, what hope do we have of obtaining anything like it in a host of other cases which have less overwhelming evidentiary scenarios?”
When asked the Turner case received more national attention than the Wilkerson case, Dauber cited the particular power of the victim’s statement in the Stanford case, which she called a “both literary and personal accomplishment.”
“So many women heard themselves and their stories in her story,” Dauber wrote in an email.
“In addition, the fact that he was a recruited athlete at the top university in the U.S. if not the world, that it happened in public, that there were eyewitnesses and DNA evidence—the whole package just made the outrage that much greater when all those facts were treated with such solicitude by the judge. It was the perfect storm.”
As of Friday afternoon, an online petition calling for Judge Butler to lose his job had garnered 18,087 signatures—up from 8,300 earlier in the day. “Similar to what happened in the Brock Turner case, Judge Butler decided that Austin’s future was more important than his victim’s,” the petition reads. “For this unjust sentencing, we demand that Judge Butler be removed from the bench in Colorado.” District judges are appointed by the governor’s office and cannot be unseated in a recall election, the Daily Camera reported.
The victim in the Wilkerson case has released her impact statement in full to the public, detailing her emotional and psychological damage from both the assault and the process of reporting it to university officials.
“When I’m not having nightmares of rape, retaliation, or retrial that goes awry, I’m having panic attacks,” she said, remarking that she now suffers from persistent anxiety and depression. “About a month after the assault, I tried to kill myself because of the impact of the sexual assault. Some days I can’t even get out of bed, let alone do four readings, projects, and study for tests… But worst of all is the victim-blaming.”
She asked the court to “have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me the night of the sexual assault, which was none.”
Still, she said that the “whole ordeal” of trying to bring her assailant to justice had been “therapeutic,” and that “other brave survivors’ eerily familiar stories have inspired me to share my story that rape isn’t always a stranger in the bushes.”