A Colorado judge let a former University of Colorado-Boulder student convicted of raping a woman he claimed to be helping off with just two years in a county jail work release program and 20 years to life on probation.
District Judge Patrick Butler said he “struggled” with the idea of putting 22-year-old Austin James Wilkerson in prison for the sexual assault, to which Wilkerson has admitted guilt.
"I don't know that there is any great result for anybody," Butler said of punishing Wilkerson with the four-to-12-year prison sentence allowed for the crime. "Mr. Wilkerson deserves to be punished, but I think we all need to find out whether he truly can or cannot be rehabilitated."
The work release program will allow Wilkerson to leave jail during the day for work or school.
Wilkerson was found guilty in May on charges of unlawful sexual contact and sexually assaulting a helpless victim. The victim, a freshman at the time of the March 2014 assault, had been drinking and Wilkerson told her friends he would care for her. She was present in the courtroom for the sentencing, but left before the defense spoke. The deputy district attorney, Caryn Datz, requested a prison sentence for the crime.
Butler told the victim’s father, who was still in the room, that he admired that she had pressed forward with the case through a public trial.
"That kind of strength is really admirable," the Boulder judge said. "Without ever forgetting this happened, I hope she is able to find hope for the future. She is clearly a bright, articulate young lady who, like everybody else, deserves a positive and hopeful future. I hope with the help and love of family and professionals, she is able to continue moving forward so that this event, where she was the victim, is not the only defining moment in her life."
Before she left the courtroom, Wilkerson’s victim spoke of having nightmares about the ordeal and its aftermath and said she now suffers from panic attacks and “can’t even get out of bed” some days.
The case shares similarities with one in California earlier this year that sparked national outcry when Stanford student Brock Turner was given a six-month sentence after being convicted of sexual assault. A letter written by his victim to Turner and read aloud at his sentencing was published on Buzzfeed and garnered overwhelming response from around the country, including Vice President Joe Biden.
The judge in that case, Aaron Persky, is subject of a recall campaign by those who say his leniency with Turner was unwarranted for his sexual assault of the unconscious victim behind a dumpster.
Wilkerson apologized for his actions during the sentencing after his victim had left the courtroom.
"I sexually assaulted (the victim)," Wilkerson said. "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."
Before she left, the victim had a message for Butler: "Have as much mercy for the rapist as he did for me that night.”