Judge who spared a college student prison time for sexually assaulting a ‘helpless’ woman said he ‘struggled’ with the decision

Austin James Wilkerson

A judge spared 22-year-old Austin Wilkerson a prison sentence on Wednesday after he was convicted of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman prosecutors described as “helpless.”

Although the conviction typically carries a sentence of four to 12 years in prison, with the option of more time, District Judge Patrick Butler instead sentenced Wilkerson to two years in jail a program that allows him to leave during the day for work or school. He will also be on probation for 20 years to life.

Full transcripts of Butler’s sentencing decision in Wilkerson’s case have not yet been made public, but portions of his comments, as reported by the Daily Camera’s Mitchell Byars, indicate that Butler felt concerned over some of Wilkerson’s actions in court.

“I do have some great concerns over, as I would describe it as, ways he tried to play the system,” Wilkerson said in court, according to the Camera.

But those concerns didn’t seem to be enough to sway his sentencing. Instead of sending Wilkerson to prison, Butler focused on the length and severity of his probation. 

“If I or any other judge sees you on a probation violation, I have almost no doubt you are going to prison,” Butler said, according to the Camera. “So if you think in any way you are getting off lightly, you are not. Twenty years to life is a long time for somebody to mess up, and I hope you don’t in any way take any of that lightly.”

Brock Turner mugshotDespite the typical minimum punishment, a pre-sentence report from the probation office recommended that Wilkerson not serve anytime in prison. Speaking to the courtroom during sentencing, Butler explained why he decided not to serve Wilkerson with prison time.

“I’ve struggled, to be quite frank, with the idea of, ‘Do I put him in prison?’” Butler said, according to the Camera.

“I don’t know that there is any great result for anybody …. Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”

Those statements echo similar rationale used by a judge in high-profile case of sexual assault at Stanford University.

Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner to just six months in jail after he was found guilty of felony sexual assault for a January 2015 attack on an unconscious woman. He was facing up to 14 years in prison.

At the sentencing decision Persky said:

“In my decision to grant probation, the question that I have to ask myself … Is state prison for this defendant an antidote to that poison? Is incarceration in state prison the right answer for the poisoning of [Jane’s] life? And trying to balance the factors in the Rules of Court, I conclude that it is not and that justice would best be served, ultimately, with a grant of probation.”

Turner’s sentence was decried as a “slap on the wrist,” and Persky faced swift backlash and claims of bias. 

While the cases have already drawn comparisons, some notable differences exist. For example, Turner was caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a garbage bin outside of a fraternity house at Stanford.

When Turner tried to run, the graduate students pinned him down until the police arrived. Still, Turner never admitted that he assaulted his victim.  

After his conviction, however, Wilkerson apologized to the court and his victim. 

“I sexually assaulted (the victim),” Wilkerson said in court according to the Daily Camera. “No words I can say could ever take away the pain and fear that I have caused. Nothing I say can make it better, but I am so sorry." 

Wilkerson’s assault took place during a party in March 2014, where prosecutors claim that Wilkerson pretended to help the woman he’d later victimize. 

"He made certain his roommate saw him checking her pulse and temperature, and giving her water,” prosecutors on the case wrote, according to The Guardian.

Although Wilkerson initially made comments to friends indicating that he sexually assaulted the woman, he later walked those statements back and called their contact consensual.

Later, Wilkerson again admitted he "digitally and orally penetrated" the woman even though he “wasn’t getting much of a response from her.”

SEE ALSO: University of Colorado student who avoided prison for sexually assaulting a ‘helpless young woman’ draws comparisons to Brock Turner

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