Judge Who Thinks Rape is "Theft of Services" Up for Retention in Philly

The case was so outrageous that women’s groups across the country protested, supported local organizations trying to unseat her, and seethed in fury when she was ultimately retained.

Nov 1, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

For sex workers, sexual assault on the job and subsequent hostile treatment in the legal system is a very real risk. Cases of assault against sex workers happen routinely, yet rarely make the headlines, but in 2007, one such case hit the national news because it was so appalling.

After a 20-year-old sex worker was gang raped at gunpoint in Philadelphia, the judge in her case determined that the only crime committed was “theft of services.” That judge, Teresa Carr Deni, was reelected for a six year term shortly thereafter.

Now, she’s up on the ballot again, and Philadelphia voters have an opportunity to decide if she should be retained when they hit the polls next Tuesday (hey Philly, remember to vote! 5 November!). This time, members of a group called Pussy Division have started a new campaign to fight her reelection, although they may be too late.

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Photo: Pussy Division.

Activists very much hope to put Deni out of office, and they’ve created a lively grassroots campaign to make voters aware of the previous case and strongly recommend that people vote “no” for Deni -- as well they should, because her determination in the case was frankly bizarre, not just horribly offensive and awful. Even the legal community agrees that her decision didn’t reflect the letter, let alone the spirit, of the law.

The details of case (HEY, trigger warning for this paragraph, friends!) started with the sex worker’s agreement to visit a client’s home, with arrangements made over Craigslist. When she arrived at the address given, she found herself at an abandoned building, and her client had a friend. In a situation that must have been rapidly escalating, she agreed to sex with both men for an added fee, which is when even more appeared, this time with a gun.

At this point, she withdrew her consent. The men proceeded to rape her. This is what happens when you have sex with someone who has not given consent. Unless you’re Judge Deni, anyway, in which case apparently it’s armed robbery for theft of services. Because that was what she decided had occurred on that September night in 2007.

You might be thinking to yourself that this Judge Deni sounds like a real charmer, but it gets better. When interviewed about her controversial decision, her comment was that the rape complaint: “minimize[d] true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.” Yes, the ugly-headed monster of fake versus real rape has appeared yet again to bite at your heels, reminding you that even women who have gone through extensive legal training can have difficulty when it comes to the simple and obvious precept that no means no.

The case was so outrageous that women’s groups across the country protested, supported local organizations trying to unseat her, and seethed in fury when she was ultimately retained. The problem was that by the time the case was highly publicized, many voters were going to the polls, or they weren’t aware of the news, and thus missed a chance to make an informed decision. 

Even more chillingly, during her retention vote in 2007, she enjoyed the endorsement of the Philadelphia Bar Association, which had evaluated her before the case erupted in the media. It was too late to process a withdrawal of the endorsement, but the bar did issue an unusual and very sharp rebuke, authored by Chancellor Jane Dalton.

Her whole opinion is worth reading, but most notably, she commented that:

Judge Deni's retention of an armed robbery charge for "theft of services" in the case of a defendant accused of forcing a prostitute at gunpoint to have sex with him and three other men -- and the related dismissal of all sex and assault charges -- belies a basic understanding of what constitutes rape in Pennsylvania....Judge Deni's belief that because the victim had originally intended to have sex for money and decided not to because she didn't get paid posits that a woman cannot change her mind about having sex, or withdraw her consent to do so, regardless of the circumstances.

But she wasn’t done. Dalton also wrote on a more personal level:

As Chancellor, a lawyer, and a human being, I am personally offended by this unforgivable miscarriage of justice. The victim has been brutalized twice in this case: first by the assailants, and now by the court.

Dalton, the Philadelphia Bar, and many other legal minds agreed that this case was a clear violation of how the law understands rape, and Dalton wasn’t the only one who accused the judge of personal bias (“her decision in this case was based on a pre-existing bias as to when sex can be consented to”). When the rapist went up in court again shortly after with a very similar offense, the DA even tried to draw upon this case as an argument that it shouldn’t be heard by Judge Deni, and failed.

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This is Judge Stevens being sworn in and given her robe. I bet she's nice, and that also she interprets the law regarding rape correctly. 

Photo: Knoxville County Government

Here we are, six years later, looking back on a long legal career that has included not just this notable rape case but scores of other legal matters large and small. Undoubtedly Deni’s bias has crept into other cases and gone unnoticed or undiscussed outside small circles. It was actually somewhat remarkable that a case involving the rape of a sex worker got national attention in the first place, given the disdain sex workers receive from the media and general society, but it highlights how brutal and awful this case was.

Judges are supposed to impartially evaluate cases and offer their opinions on the basis of legal precedent and what's been codified into the law. Their whole function is as neutral observers, not those who pass value judgements or make decisions on the basis of personal bias. In this case, a woman chose to withdraw consent for sex and a man continued, something that is regarded as rape in Pennsylvania. Yet, Judge Deni chose not to interpret this relatively clear-cut case this way, because she was looking at a young sex worker, and apparently didn't think she deserved equal treatment under the law. 

Now, you’d think that voters would be leaping at the chance to take her down. Astonishingly, though, the Philadelphia Bar has recommended that she be retained at her post at the Municipal Court, as though the furore of 2007 has been utterly forgotten. From scathing, vicious legal teardown to endorsement in just six short years -- years during which the victim Judge Deni retraumatized has been forced to live with memories of her experience every day.

Sadly, the activism campaign to unseat her may have arrived too late to have a meaningful effect on the outcome of the election, though I hope I'm wrong. And I can only hope that Philadelphia voters have longer memories than their Bar Association does.

This case serves as a reminder that local elections do matter, and that it pays to research candidates and get involved in local politics. While it may not carry the glamor, attention, and fun of sharing memes on Facebook or talking about national politics, it can have a real-world impact on your own community.

Campaigns like these need to be carefully designed and planned in advance to start reaching voters early so they can spread the word, ensuring that judges like this are voted off the bench.