BOULDER, Colo. — A former University of Colorado student was sentenced to two years of work-release in jail for sexually assaulting a drunk classmate under the guise of caring for her, a sentence that’s drawing criticism for not fitting the crime.
A Boulder jury convicted Austin James Wilkerson in May of one count of sexual assault of a helpless victim and one count of unlawful sexual contact.
Judge Patrick Butler sentenced Wilkerson to two years in jail under work release, meaning he can leave during the day for school or work and return at night, and 20 years of sex offender-specific intensive probation, which includes treatment and therapy and lifetime registration as a sex offender with the chance to get off the registry after 20 years.
The sentence fell between the Probation Department’s recommendation of no prison time, based on Wilkerson’s show of remorse, and the district attorney’s request of four to 20 years in prison, based on the nature of the crime and its impact on the survivor.
“I’ve struggled, to be quite frank, with the idea of, ‘Do I put him in prison?'” Butler said, according to Boulder newspaper The Daily Camera.
“Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated.”
Wilkerson’s attorney, Michael Cohen, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He told The Daily Camera that Wilkerson’s remorse was genuine.
“If he was faking it or showing false remorse, this would come out,” Cohen said.
The outcome drew comparisons to the sentence of Stanford student Brock Turner, who received six months in jail for raping a woman behind a dumpster.
“We are disappointed to see, yet again, that the impact on the perpetrator, who chose to commit a crime against another person, is being considered over the impact on the victim, who did not have a choice in the matter,” said Brie Franklin, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“What research tells us is that these incidents are not ‘accidents’ or ‘misunderstandings,’ but rather patterns of thought and behavior that will not change, and will most likely escalate, unless the individual is held accountable for their choices and actions.”
But sex offender treatment and registration is “another kind of prison,” advocates say. Is it enough for survivors seeking justice?
‘His actions speak louder than his words’
In her request for prison time for Wilkerson, Deputy District Attorney Lisa Saccomano said he displayed a pattern of “highly deceptive, manipulative behavior,” from the night of the incident to his interviews with the probation department, changing his story when it suited him.
Wilkerson knew the young woman from high school. When she became intoxicated at a party on March 15, 2014, Wilkerson brought her to his home off campus, telling her friends he would care for her, according to court documents.
His roommate watched him give her water and check her pulse and temperature. When they were alone, he sexually assaulted her, making sure to send a text message to her friend, who thanked him for caring for her, according to the district attorney’s sentencing memo.
He told university investigators that he made moves on her but she rebuffed him, calling her a “f—— bitch” and saying he felt “pissed off.”
When confronted with the possibility that his semen may have been found on the victim, he said that he masturbated, claiming he ejaculated into the toilet; the only way she could have his ejaculate on her was from using the toilet, according to the sentencing memo.
He later told friends that he digitally penetrated a girl while she was passed out and “let his hands wander.”
At trial, he testified the woman was not drunk and had engaged with him “passionately,” making “pleasure sounds” while he “caressed” her vagina. He said he left in the middle of the encounter because he felt guilty for cheating on his girlfriend.
By the time he spoke to a probation investigator he was contrite, crying as he recalled how the woman’s testimony moved him.
Citing his “impressive acceptance” of responsibility and empathy for the woman, the state probation department recommended no prison time.
“However, his actions speak louder than his words,” Saccomano said in her sentencing memorandum.
“The defendant raped a helpless young woman after duping the people around her into believing he was going to care for her, tried to cover up his crime, and then repeatedly lied about what he did, including under oath at trial,” she said.
Saccomano urged the court to consider the message a sentence would send to the university community, where a recent campus climate survey found that 28% of students said they were sexually assaulted. She noted the third degree felony sexual assault charge for which he was convicted is in the same class of crimes as second degree murder and vehicular homicide.
‘Rapists should go to prison’
Susan Walker, director of the advocacy group Coalition for Sexual Offense Restoration, said sex offender treatment and registration is far from getting off light.
It affects where and with whom you live, and your job prospects, she said. Requirements vary, but typically include electronic monitoring, polygraph tests, no Internet access, and giving all your email passwords to law enforcement.
As for treatment, “it’s a tough program, the probation officers and treatment providers ride you very hard,” she said. “It’s a constant emotional strain, another kind of prison.”
All of that pales in comparison to what a survivor of sexual assault goes through, Saccomano said.
“The purpose of probation and treatment is rehabilitation. It may be onerous, but that does not mean it’s punishment. It is considered a privilege because it allows an offender to remain in the community instead of being behind bars,” she said.
“Our contention is that rapists should go to prison. It’s a serious crime that deserves a serious punishment.”