In 2015, Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner sexually assaulted an unconscious woman named Chanel Miller. Turner was eventually arrested and convicted of three charges in a well-publicized trial, one that also featured a powerful victim statement by Miller that went viral on the internet. But when Turner’s sentence was announced — six months in jail, three years of probation, and lifetime on the sex offender registry — some considered it too light, and the outrage and despair many felt found an outlet on Twitter in the growing #MeToo movement. Eventually, the backlash led to the recall of the judge on the case — Aaron Persky — in 2018.
But while many felt the recall served justice, a new MSNBC documentary by Rebecca Richman Cohen ’07, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, complicates that picture.
In “The Recall: Reframed,” Richman Cohen probes the claims that Turner’s sentence was disproportionately light and examines what happened in the aftermath of Judge Persky’s removal from the bench. It turns out, Richman Cohen says, that the fallout may have had unintended consequences.
“Advocates were outraged that after decades of activism there is still victim blaming, that sexual harms are often normalized or excused, and that sexual violence continues. And they are right to be outraged about all of these things,” she says. “The film also looks at another set of harms: those that are associated with harsh prison sentences. Those are the harms of mass incarceration, and how we often prioritize punishment over real accountability.”
Those pushing for the recall highlighted the role of white privilege in Turner’s sentence, she says, but ironically, “what happened was that sentences across the state of California increased by 30% in the six weeks following the announcement of the recall, and because the criminal legal system is structurally racist, those sentences disproportionately affected low income and people of color, the very folks that pro-recall activists were claiming to serve.”
She says that the racial justice uprisings in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020 changed the conversation. “Even though activists were clearly saying in 2018 that the recall was going to backfire and increase sentences for low income and people of color, it just didn’t have the same emotional valence for mainstream media and for mainstream feminism as it does after 2020.”
Richman Cohen says her film investigates the ways in which the criminal system fails survivors of sexual violence and what real accountability could look like. In addition to working with survivor groups across the country, she says, she has partnered with Inquest, which is part of the law school’s Institute to End Mass Incarceration. “We’ve collaborated on an outreach campaign that raises the central question of the film: how should we respond to sexual violence in a way that doesn’t further perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration?”
What she has heard so far, she says, differs from a purely carceral approach. “Keeping in mind that survivors often have very different experiences and priorities, but what we hear is people want public acknowledgement, they want community recognition, protection from future harm, and they want accountability,” she says. “But that does not mean harsh punishment, necessarily.”
The power of film
Richman Cohen has built a career at the intersection of law and filmmaking. Before attending Harvard Law School, she was a documentary researcher and assistant editor. The summer after her second year of law school, Richman Cohen interned at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a United Nations tribunal formed to address war crimes committed in the West African nation.
She says her experiences moved her to try to make a film about what was happening there. She used her final year in law school to pursue an independent writing project, and what resulted was a multiple award-winning feature-length documentary, War Don Don, which premiered on HBO in 2010.
“I’m most attracted to stories about the complexity of the world, ones that interweave different perspectives and experiences,” says Richman Cohen. “But also ones that push back on conventions, and somehow reveal the structural injustices of the world. Those are some of the through lines of my work.”
She has continued to make films that explore those tensions, such as 2012’s Code of the West, about America’s drug war, and Untouchable (2016), which examines sex offender registries.
Richman Cohen sees filmmaking as a natural extension of her legal work and advocacy. As a lecturer at Harvard Law, she teaches courses on how documentary film can shine a light on injustice and influence public perception of important issues. Her students learn how film and other types of media are used in courtrooms, and the influence they can have on juries and judges.
Richman Cohen is also interested in mentoring the next generation of lawyer-filmmakers. “I had really wonderful mentors when I was a student, who supported me to figure out how to tell stories in the service of legal advocacy,” she says. “I think a lot of my role now as a lecturer, and as an adviser to groups like the Harvard Law Film Society, is to pay that forward and to support current students who are interested in that work.”
As Richman Cohen teaches her students, films like Recall: Reframed, now screening at film festivals around the country in addition to MSNBC, can be a vital tool for legal advocates looking to raise critical questions about justice, accountability, and the future of the criminal system. “My hope is that we stop our knee jerk response to violence by seeking harsh punishments, that we question those impulses, and that we can open our imaginations to envision a world that provides justice for sexual violence that doesn’t also perpetuate the harms of mass incarceration.”
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