Status and race in the Stanford rape case: Why Brock Turner's mug shot matters

The fact that authorities withheld Brock Turner's mug shot for 16 months is being pegged as an illustration of the racial disparities within America's criminal justice system.

'If Brock Turner were black, we would be seeing his mug shot instead of a yearbook photo'

The fact that authorities withheld ex-Stanford student and convicted sex offender Brock Turner's mug shot for 16 months is being pegged as an illustration of the racial disparities within America's criminal justice system. (Laura Hahn Fields/Facebook)

The story of a star athlete at an elite American university who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster has been everywhere this week.

From the newsstand to the water cooler and even in classrooms, it's hard to go anywhere right now now without hearing Brock Turner's name – and even harder to go more than 10 clicks online without seeing his face.

But which face do people see when they look at the ex-Stanford swimmer (and newly-convicted sex offender)?

Turner has generated more media coverage in the wake of his sentencing than he likely ever would have as an Olympian, but critics say that the images used in many stories about his case fail to illustrate why.

Why, for instance, would a news outlet choose to run photos of Turner swimming for Stanford in a story about how angry people are over his "unusually lenient" six-month jail sentence?

Why was Turner's smiling yearbook photo used in coverage of his victim's now-viral impact statement, his father's controversial letter of defence, and of the petition to remove Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky from office over the outcome of this case?

And why did so many articles show the 20-year-old wearing a suit and tie standing next to his mother outside of a courtroom, as opposed to a mug shot showing what he looked like on the night of the crime when he was arrested?

While some of the bias criticism may indeed be valid. But there is one answer to the question of why journalists didn't use Turner's official mug shot from the start: They couldn't.

The #NoMugShot movement

Despite the fact that Turner was arrested in January of 2015 – and then convicted in March of this year – his actual mug shot wasn't made available to the public until Monday, after the case had blown up worldwide.

It wasn't for lack of trying by the media to get the shot.

According to New York Magazine's The Cut, authorities involved in the case had been volleying responsibility for releasing the photo amongst themselves as pressure mounted.

The Santa Clara Sheriff's Department told multiple journalists that the arresting agency – the Stanford Department of Public Safety – must make the decision on whether or not to share the mug shot. Stanford, on the other hand, said that the call must come from the Sheriff's Department.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the hashtags #NoMugShot and #WheresTheMugShot picked up steam as news outlets ran the only pictures of Turner they could: Wire images of the sex offender in court, headshots from school and, in some cases, sports photos.

Eventually, thanks in part to public pressure and media requests, the Santa Clara Sheriff's Department released Turner's sentencing photo. According to NBC, these photos are taken when a convicted defendant is handed over to state custody.

There was no smile in this picture, but Turner still appeared clean-cut in a suit and tie.

16 months later, the booking photo

What the public still insisted on seeing is what's known as a booking photo – an image taken when someone is arrested that, under California law, is a public record.

It wasn't until Monday evening, more than 16 months after the original mug shot was taken and the crime occurred, that the Stanford Department of Public Safety released it to the press.

Michigan-based Diana Prichard shared the formal request she made to Stanford a few hours before it complied, and is now being credited in part for the photo's publication.

The privilege of being white

The fact that it took authorities 16 months and much prodding to release a booking photo from the Stanford sexual assault case – even after Turner was convicted – is enough to raise questions on its own given the seriousness of his crimes.

In a country where racial and socioeconomic disparity are so well-documented and pervasive, particularly within the criminal justice system, Turner's case got many citizens wondering: Would the ex-Stanford swimmer's sentence have been different if he wasn't white?

A report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by The Sentencing Project in 2013 showed that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males in the U.S., and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. 

In California, where Turner was sentenced, the ratio of black people to white people in prison was 8.8 to 1 as of 2014.

While every criminal case is different, there are plenty of rulings involving black students to contrast Turner's against – like the case of Corey Batey, a 19-year-old Vanderbilt University football star who was also convicted on three felony counts of sexual assault.

15 to 25 years for black offender

In April, a Tennessee judge ordered Batey to serve minimum sentence of 15 to 25 years in prison – "3,000 per cent longer than what Brock Turner was given for a comparable crime," Shaun King noted in The New York Daily News.

The parallels between these cases in the wake of Turner's sentencing hasn't gone unnoticed. Nearly 200,000 people have now shared the Facebook image contrasting these felons below:

Many writers and academics are now saying that, at best, the fact Turner's mug shot was withheld is illustrative of the racial disparities within America's criminal justice system.

At worst, choosing to show images of him swimming, smiling and looking every bit the all-American athlete could influence public perception to the point that his conviction is called into question.

Questions about media portrayal

"Turner's name may be permanently marred by the crime, but he's granted a reprieve by only having images of him smiling in dress suits available to the public," writes Dayna Evans for The Cut. "Presenting him as a well-dressed college athlete instead of the convicted felon he is could also open the victim's statements up to unfair scrutiny."

Kelly Ellis highlighted the impact of media representation in crime cases on Twitter by comparing the Washington Post's coverage of Turner's case to three separate stories about black men accused of sex assault:

Arguing that there's "inevitably a racial element" to the selection of images in crime reporting, Stassa Edwards explains that mug shots "fundamentally convey who a person is (or, what they have done, at least); they make them suspicious and criminal."

"Stories of Turner illustrated with school portraits resist the visual classification of him as a criminal body; in effect, the absence of a mug shot preserves his promising reputation," she writes for Jezebel. "In April 2015, an Iowa newspaper was heavily criticized for showing the yearbook photographs of three white suspects who had been arrested for possession of stolen property. Black suspects, arrested for similar crimes, had their mug shots used instead; a persistent reminder that the photograph is never neutral, neither in its selection nor implication."

Others are pointing out that it's not only criminals who are held to a double standard in photographic representations. Even more problematic is the way that black victims of crime are portrayed.

Portrayal of black victims

In 2015, University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was indicted for the murder of an unarmed black man named Sam DuBose.

As Fusion notes, NBC, BBC, CNN and other mainstream media outlets used a mug shot of Dubose from a previous, unrelated arrest to report the story. Tensing, on the other hand, was shown in his police uniform.

The images used to report on the deaths of unarmed teenagers Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, drew similar criticism.

In the wake of Brown's death, thousands of young black people took to Twitter on the hasthag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown with images of themselves, both polished and casual, wondering which photos would be used to tell their stories if they themselves were killed by police.

"More research is perhaps needed to best understand the scope of the problem, but if there is a problem it will, like other ways in which blacks are portrayed in the media, have an effect on white thought," wrote Garrett S. Griffin, author of Racism in Kansas City, after Turner's mug shot was finally released.

"If we create a common standard for arrested persons, such as, 'No matter your race, the media should print no images except mug shots,' surely we can also establish one for people who die in confrontations or mere benign situations involving the police," he posited. 

"We can be more careful, and more equitable, about the stories we tell."

This image, which compare some of the photos used to illustrate stories about white convicted sex offender Brock Turner and black teen murder victim Trayvon Martin, has been shared widely online in the wake of Turner's sentencing. (TaNeashia Sudds/Facebook)

About the Author

Lauren O'Neil

Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.

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