The Brock Turner case put campus sexual assault in the headlines. Alaleh Kianerci J.D. ’07 let its victims be heard.
Alaleh Kianerci calls the Brock Turner case a perfect storm: a white, privileged student-athlete accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. There was little question as to guilt, in a traditional sense. Turner, then a swimmer at Stanford, was caught in the act. He ran and was tackled. The question was how far the American judicial system had come in addressing its issues with sexual assault. Kianerci, the deputy district attorney assigned to the case, thought it would bring privilege, consent, and rape into the spotlight. But even she couldn’t have predicted the media storm that followed Turner’s conviction and surprisingly lenient six-month sentence.
“It was such an important case for a lot of different reasons,” Kianerci says. “With the sentencing, it’s just taken a whole new life force—but for good.”
When Kianerci saw the letter, she knew others needed to read it as well. In addition to submitting the letter to the probation officer, Kianerci posted it on the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s website. BuzzFeed republished it. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield read it on the air. Within days it reached millions. Letters of support poured in.
“There are victims of sexual assault daily, and there are victims who write eloquent impact statements,” Kianerci says. “This one was just different.”
Turner was sentenced in June and released after serving three months. The judge in the case, Aaron Persky, became the target of a high-profile recall campaign.
Months later, remnants of the trial lingered in Kianerci’s office in Palo Alto. On the shelf were boxes of documents with Turner’s mug shot. Behind her chair was another box with Turner’s face, this one with letters of support for the victim. When we spoke in October, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was preparing to air an episode with a story similar to the Turner case.
“As much as it’s died down since the sentencing, there are constantly things that bring it back into the realm of popular culture, which I think is a good thing,” Kianerci says.
Finding a Connection
During the trial and after sentencing, Kianerci became the de facto voice for Doe, appearing on local and national news outlets. “I was really protective of her,” Kianerci says.
Kianerci points to one part of the trial that troubles her. Kim Fromme, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is an expert witness who testified on behalf of Turner. Fromme conducted research that she believes shows intoxicated people aren’t consent-impaired but memory impaired. It was an unfortunate reminder of the obstacles victims face when they attempt to bring their attackers to justice. “She’s an educator,” Kianerci says of Fromme. “She was a professor at a university that has young adults who are greatly affected by these types of cases.”
A daughter of Iranian immigrants (her first name, Alaleh, means “tulip” in Farsi), Kianerci grew up in Santa Cruz. Her parents own a restaurant in San Jose, where she managed the bar her first semester at SCU law. She has a skill for connecting with people and witnesses.
“It made it easier to stay here as late as I could to make sure that when I cross-examined [Fromme], it really poked holes in her testimony,” Kianerci says. “If I wasn’t able to do that, the outcome could’ve been different.”
Bringing Real Change
As for Turner’s light sentence, Kianerci doesn’t blame the judge exclusively. He was acting within the law. “There are many judges in the state of California that would’ve done the same thing,” she says.
Kianerci and Santa Clara District Attorney Jeff Rosen used public support as an opportunity to make long-term change. Two weeks after the trial, they testified in a legislative hearing for California AB-2888, a bill that closed a loophole allowing perpetrators who assaulted unconscious victims to avoid jail time. The bill passed unanimously. Gov. Jerry Brown ’59 issued a signing statement along with the law, and that letter explaining the rationale behind the law now hangs in Kianerci’s office. Legislation that makes jail time mandatory can be problematic, as it often disproportionately affects people of color. In fact, in his letter, Brown mentions his general opposition to mandatory minimum sentences. Kianerci says that isn’t the case here.
“I believe this is going to bring parity in the special treatment non-minorities [get],” Kianerci says. She likens the bill to what Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done for DUI laws. “Hopefully this case will have the same impact.”
Matt Morgan is assistant editor of Santa Clara Magazine.