By Kristine Guerra
The Washington Post
Earlier this month, a Montana man who repeatedly raped his 12-year-old daughter was sentenced to 60 days in jail.
On Friday, a California man who repeatedly raped his daughter when she was a teenager was sentenced to 1,503 years in prison.
Comparisons of the two cases were quickly drawn. Brock Turner’s six-month sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman outside a Stanford University frat house was also thrown into the mix.
Just as Judge Aaron Persky, of Santa Clara County, Calif., found himself besieged by critics over Turner’s light sentence, so did Judge John McKeon, of Valley County, Montana, after he handed down a two-month jail sentence to the 40-year-old man who pleaded guilty to incest.
“The victim only had the justice system on her side, and it failed her,” reads an online petition calling for McKeon’s impeachment. “Judge McKeon failed her.”
Compare that to the reaction to the gargantuan sentence imposed by Judge Edward Sarkisian Jr., of Fresno County, California, on the 41-year-old man who raped his daughter for years.
Readers who commented on stories about the case thanked Sarkisian, a California Superior Court judge since 1987.
“This Judge always give great rulings,” a Fresno Bee reader commented after Rene Lopez received what amounts to multiple lifetime sentences.
“This is great. This judge set(s) a very good example of all judges to follow,” wrote another.
“Bravo. We need to clone this judge,” one reader wrote on the Facebook page for the group Justice For Children Without Voices.
“A judge that gets it!!” another said.
Several factors could explain the sentencing disparity between the two rape cases.
For one, the father from Glasgow in eastern Montana pleaded guilty to only one count of incest to receive a lighter sentence. Two other counts were dismissed as part of the plea deal.
Rene Lopez, of Fresno, was found guilty by a jury of 186 felony charges, including 22 counts of rape of a minor and 163 counts of rape. The trial lasted 11 days, court records show.
Lopez could have received a much lighter sentence.
Prosecutors offered him a plea deal twice, the Fresno Bee reported. The first offer could have secured him a prison sentence of 13 years, at most; the second, 22 years. But Lopez rejected both offers and chose to go to trial instead.
According to the Fresno Bee, Lopez raped his then-teenage daughter from May 2009 to May 2013. She was raped two to three times a week, on Christmas and other holidays.
The horrific crimes ended when the girl, who is now 23, moved out. Lopez was arrested in November 2013, after she reported the abuse to police, the Bee reported.
During the trial, jurors were read entries from a diary in which the victim chronicled the crimes against her.
The Washington Post generally does not name victims of sexual abuse.
The Post also is not naming the convicted man from Montana, as it could expose the identity of his victim, who is still a minor.
Testimony given at the sentencing hearings for the two men likely played a significant role in how they were punished.
In a statement explaining his decision, McKeon, the Montana judge, said the victim’s mother and grandmother wrote letters asking for the defendant to not be sent to prison, the Associated Press reported. While his actions were horrible, the man has two sons who love and need him, the women wrote.
Nobody spoke on the victim’s behalf, according to the AP.
In Lopez’s case, the victim testified about the abuse during the sentencing hearing on Friday.
“When my father abused me, I was young; I had no power, no voice — I was defenseless,” she said, according to the Fresno Bee.
Sarkisian, the judge, called the victim a “courageous young woman.”
Lopez, who did not testify at his trial, wrote a letter to the judge saying his daughter lied. He also did not show any remorse, his daughter said in court.
Sarkisian found him to be a serious danger to society. After his daughter moved out, Lopez left love songs on her answering machine and drove by her new home, the judge said.
When she got pregnant, he paid for her abortion, the Bee reported.
In Montana, prosecutors did not challenge a psychosexual evaluation’s findings that the defendant could be safely treated and supervised in the community, the AP reported.
McKeon explained that although the plea agreement recommended a sentence of 25 years, it also provided for a lesser sentence depending on the results of the psychosexual evaluation. Under Montana state law, defendants may not face the mandatory 25-year prison sentence for incest involving children age 12 and younger if an evaluation finds that they can be rehabilitated.
Montana’s sentencing policies “encourage and provide opportunities for an offender’s self-improvement, rehabilitation and reintegration back into a community,” McKeon wrote in his statement, according to the AP.
A clinical social worker also testified that the defendant is not likely to commit a similar crime if properly treated. Public defender Casey Moore said the man is remorseful and has cooperated with law enforcement, according to the Glasgow Courier.
McKeon’s sentence requires the defendant to register as a sex offender and to communicate regularly with a probation officer. He’s prohibited from having any contact with the victim or any minor and from accessing pornographic material.
Prosecuting attorney Dylan Jensen told the Glasgow Courier that he was “shocked and disappointed” with the 60-day sentence.
But while Jensen said he respected McKeon’s decision, the public’s fury likely will not dissipate anytime soon: The online petition calling for the judge’s impeachment has been signed more than 100,000 times.
It’s unlikely to make a difference, however: McKeon is retiring next month.
And according to the National Center for State Courts, a judge may be only impeached by a two-thirds vote in the state legislature. The state’s judicial standards commission also can make a recommendation to the state Supreme Court.