HOUSTON – In a case with echoes of the furor involving a Stanford University swimmer two years ago, advocates for sex-crime victims say the plea bargain that enabled a former Baylor University fraternity president to stay out of jail is another failure by the legal system.
“What’s similar is that violence against women is not taken seriously by the legal system,” said Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor who led the successful campaign to recall the judge in the swimmer’s case. “The handling of sexual assault in the criminal justice system has been inappropriate, and sort of shockingly so, for a really long time.”
In the Texas case, Jacob Walter Anderson, 23, had been charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old fellow Baylor student outside a 2016 fraternity party. The woman told police she was given punch and became disoriented. She said Anderson led her behind a tent and raped her while choking her.
Prosecutors offered him a deal in which he pleaded no contest in October to unlawful restraint. State District Judge Ralph Strother sentenced him under the terms of the deal Monday to probation, counseling and a $400 fine. He will not have to register as a sex offender.
The woman’s lawyer, Vic Feazell, said she and her family found out about the plea bargain from reading the newspaper.
“He stole my body, virginity and power over my body,” the woman said in a statement she read in court Monday. She said the outcome shows that the justice system in McLennan County, where Baylor is located, is “severely broken.”
Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, said Anderson should have been sent to jail and required to register as a sex offender.
“File that under men protecting men instead of victims and women,” she said.
The judge, Anderson’s lawyers and prosecutors did not return calls for comment. But District Attorney Abel Reyna defended the plea bargain back in October, saying prosecutors “achieved the best result possible with the evidence at hand.” He said the evidence did not support the allegation that the victim may have been drugged.
Many were particularly outraged by the judge’s grant of probation to at least two other men accused of sexually assaulting Baylor students, as well as an email one of the prosecutors sent the woman’s lawyer in which she suggested jurors would take Anderson’s side because there was just one alleged victim.
“It’s my opinion that our jurors aren’t ready to blame rapists and not victims when there isn’t concrete proof of more than one victim,” prosecutor Hilary LaBorde wrote in her email, which was obtained by the Waco Tribune-Herald.
LaBorde has been recognized by Texas prosecutors for her expertise in sex-crime cases. As Baylor was embroiled in a scandal a few years ago that led to the football coach’s firing and the president’s removal, she won convictions against two football players for sexual assault.
Stanford’s Dauber said the judge should have rejected the plea agreement. The defendant could have gotten up to 20 years in prison if convicted of sexual assault.
Instead, Dauber said, “the crimes are systematically minimized, the harm is minimized. The message is somehow sent that this is not that serious.”
Anderson was expelled from Baylor after a university investigation.
In the Stanford case, college athlete Brock Turner was convicted of sexual assault, and California Judge Aaron Persky sentenced him to six months in jail, which was widely criticized as too lenient. Voters eventually removed the judge from the bench after a campaign that raised more than $2 million in contributions nationwide.
Texas does not have recall elections for judges, but Strother’s term expires in 2020. Dauber said it was too soon to decide whether her political action committee will try to unseat him. Van Pelt said she expects NOW’s state affiliate to work against him.
“If we don’t get him removed, when the next one comes along, we’ll work on the next one,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until this culture changes.”
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