Pennsylvania activists have launched a campaign urging against the retention of Judge Teresa Carr Deni in Philadelphia municipal court in next week’s general election. The campaign is in response to a controversial ruling Deni made six years ago, when she reduced charges of an alleged gang rape of a sex worker to theft of services. The story made national headlines at the time.
According to reports, a 20-year-old single mother agreed to sex with the defendant, Dominique Gindraw, in exchange for $150. After plans were made over Craigslist, the woman headed to a location that she thought was his home, but was actually an abandoned building. She agreed to have sex with his friend for another $100, but the friend brought a gun instead of money. Then two more men arrived, and “the four forced her to have sex at gunpoint,” according to the Philadelphia Daily News.
At a preliminary hearing, Judge Deni dismissed rape and sexual assault charges.
“She consented and she didn’t get paid,” she explained to the Daily News. “I thought it was a robbery.” She also said the case “minimizes true rape cases and demeans women who are really raped.”
The ruling, remarks about the victim, and subsequent fallout took place right before Deni was up for retention in 2007. In response, activists launched a grassroots “Deny Deni” campaign at polling places. In an unusual move, then chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association Jane Leslie Dalton issued a harsh rebuke of the judge, calling it an “unforgivable miscarriage of justice.”
From the statement:
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.
I have personally reviewed the transcript from the defendant’s preliminary hearing in this case. Based on my reading, the transcript clearly reflects that the victim decided she was not going to engage in sex with any of the men present, and that she was forced to do so at gunpoint. No one has denied or contradicted this.
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. We cannot imagine any circumstances more violent or coercive than being forced to have sex with four men at gunpoint.
The situation erupted only 28 days after the Philadelphia Bar Association had already formally recommended Deni for retention in the election. Officials explained that the bar did not retract the recommendation because, essentially, it would have taken too long to go through the process before election.
Gindraw was reportedly arrested for an almost identical crime four days later, according to reports.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Bar Association recently issued this year’s Judicial Selection and Retention ratings, which includes a recommendation to retain Deni in municipal court.
“The judge’s career is looked at in its entirety,” said attorney Teresa F. Sachs, speaking on behalf of the Philadelphia Bar Association. Sachs explains that when the association reviews judges, everything about his or her history, including media reports and social media postings, are taken into consideration.
On Tuesday night, Pussy Division, an anonymous collective of Philadelphia-based feminist activists, started tweeting logos and posted a meme urging voters to vote no on retention of Judge Deni. SlutWalk Philly also tweeted the message.
“We are really outraged that a judge in our city could preside over a case where a sex worker was raped at gunpoint and denied the rights of any other person,” a member of Pussy Division told RH Reality Check in an email. “This injustice has inspired us to work on a project around consent and the false idea that not everyone has the right to say no.”
Lindsay Roth is co-founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and director of Project Safe, a collective of volunteers working to “promote human rights-based public health among women working in prostitution on the street in Philadelphia.”
“We don’t really have the capacity to run a campaign, but what I can say about sex workers is that … for a long time, sex workers have mistrusted the criminal justice system,” said Roth. “So … [Deni’s] ruling and comments didn’t really come as a surprise to us. [But] I’m happy to see other women’s groups and advocacy groups are picking up the advocacy of sex workers.”
One of the ways sex workers in Philadelphia protect themselves is by circulating a “bad date” alert sheet that informally documents sex workers’ reports of violence.
How common is violence against sex workers? Because of the tendency not to report, there are no reliable local statistics. But Roth says she hears about a “bad date” to add to the list almost every time she works outreach.
“And that’s someone willing to talk to a stranger about a time they were raped recently,” she says. “I’m always amazed that someone is willing to do that.”
Roth points out that violence takes the form of both direct violence, such as assault, and structural violence. “Women have tried to report sexual assault and other types of assault to law enforcement,” she said. “They don’t listen.”
Judge Deni did not return a request for comment.
The general election takes place November 5. If Deni retains her seat, it will be her fourth six-year term.