Can Teresa Carr Deni Convince Voters to Look Past a Controversial Legal Case?

In 2007, as a Municipal Court judge, she said the alleged rape of a prostitute was a “robbery.” Today she's running for D.A.

Teresa Carr Deni

Teresa Carr Deni | Photo courtesy of Tommie St. Hill

“Philly Judge Criticized for Rape Decision.” “Judge Criticized for Considering Gang Rape on Prostitute ‘Theft of Services.’” “Judge Who Thinks Rape is ‘Theft of Services’ Up for Retention in Philly.”

Those are some of the headlines that pop up when you Google Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni’s name. Back in 2007, the Democrat dismissed sexual assault charges against a man who allegedly raped a prostitute at gunpoint, which drew ire from local women’s groups. She let robbery charges stand, telling the Philadelphia Daily News at the time, “She consented and she didn’t get paid. I thought it was a robbery.” Now, Deni says the media “misconstrued” the case, and that “the situation was corrected, and everyone was pleased with the result.”

Will she be able to convince concerned voters to look past the incident — or take her side — and cast a ballot for her in the district attorney’s race in May? PhillyMag sat down with Deni last month at the magazine’s offices, where she argued in favor of severely limiting the D.A.’s civil asset forfeiture unit, cutting back on the use of cash bail, and increasing the penalty for smoking marijuana outside. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Read our Q&As with the other D.A. candidates in the May 16th election here.

Teresa Carr Deni’s Platform at a Glance

  • Death penalty: “In the most heinous cases, I think it should be sought.”
  • Civil asset forfeiture: “I’m ready to all but dismantle that situation.”
  • Cash bail: Supports reducing the use of cash bail.
  • Gifts: She wouldn’t accept gifts as D.A.
  • Super PACs: “I would reject super PACs.”
  • On how to fight crime: Be more “visible” as a D.A., visit high schools, meet with community leaders regularly, and push to increase the penalty for smoking marijuana outside.
  • On whether bad cops are sufficiently held accountable: “I am not as familiar with the specifics of [District Attorney Seth Williams’s] record” on the issue. “So I can’t take a position.”

Why are you running for district attorney?
Because there are a lot of improvements that need to happen, and since I’ve been involved with the courts for the last 21 years, I think I’m more familiar with the momentum of the MacArthur grant in terms of the diversion programs and some of the goals around mass incarceration, and the inequality of keeping people in jail when they can’t afford the bail, as opposed to because they’re dangerous. A number of issues are not being addressed sufficiently by the district attorney’s office. The experience of the other candidates in the D.A.’s race … it’s old. It’s not part of the ongoing changes that are happening now, and I think they might be more inclined to bring back an old culture, rather than set a new one.

Which candidates are you talking about specifically?
All of them. [Editor’s note: At the time of this interview, the declared challengers were Joe Khan, Michael Untermeyer, and Richard Negrin.] Each of them spent years in the district attorney’s office, but it was all about 15 years ago, so it would be kind of a time warp to have that vision resurrected, as opposed to starting something new based on what is ongoing with the courts.

How would you grade District Attorney Seth Williams’s job performance?
At this point, he has lost the confidence of the people of Philadelphia, and if you don’t have that, it is a failing situation. I think he’s gotten distracted, and I just don’t think he’s got his eyes on the goals that he came in with. He came in strong, but he got distracted with all this personal stuff. He had reforms he wanted to make. Let’s start with the charging unit. His plan was that just the minimum plea that they knew that they could prove, that was all that was going to be charged. And they had more experienced district Attorneys assigned to that. A lot of those people have left, and they’ve just become disillusioned with the culture of the office, so that was a major promise that wasn’t fulfilled.

He seems to have lost the confidence of the police union, and that is not a good situation in Philadelphia. And I have to say: The police commissioner has fulfilled a lot of the standards that have been put in place by the federal oversight that was requested by [former] Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, so there are a lot of positive developments going on with the police. I think the community should be happy about it, and that people should be more aware of it than they are. This is not the same police culture that we had 20 years ago.

What judicial decisions are you proudest of?
I’m most proud of every day that I went to work. I try to be fair. Each day was a special mission, and I never took it for granted. The smallest case is as important as the biggest case, so I am proud of my 21 years of service on the bench. Every day, you meet different people, you see different situations. That’s the beauty of the job, is that you rarely encounter the same situation twice. So I was mostly happy with my decisions, and if I wasn’t, I sometimes would tell the attorney to file a petition for reconsideration so that I could take another look at it. It didn’t happen often, but it happened.

When you Google your name, a controversial case comes up: In 2007, you dismissed rape charges against a man accused of raping a prostitute at gunpoint, leaving only robbery charges for a “theft of services.” Women’s groups said that was deeply offensive. Can you explain your decision?
That’s a misconstruction of it. It’s very complicated. You had to be there. I’m not going to get into it because it’s just too complicated to explain. The situation was corrected, and everyone was pleased with the result.

What do you mean the situation was corrected?
There’s a lot of times where the District Attorney’s office doesn’t like the outcome of a preliminary hearing, and they will simply re-file it. And that’s all that happened in that case.

You say you don’t want to get into it, but this is a case that there was a lot of interest in. The public deserves to know what your rationale was.
There’s a lot of interest in it because a woman from the Bar Association went on radio programs and inserted herself into a situation that she had no firsthand knowledge of, and I was kind of stuck with that. So, other than that, I’m not going to get into it.

You have to look at the other 99,999 cases that I did. I’m not going to dwell on the one mistake people think that I made, or why they think I did it, or anything like that. I cannot undo people’s perceptions in a situation where I’m not even allowed to speak about it. So I can’t get into it, and I’m not getting into it.

Okay, let me put it to you in a different way. Do you think that prostitutes can be raped?
Of course they can.

I want to ask you about some of Seth Williams’s high-profile decisions. John Dougherty was accused of assaulting a non-union electrical worker in 2016, and Williams decided to punt the case to the Attorney General’s office. Was that the right call?
It was an appropriate call under the circumstances because he was supported, I believe, by John Dougherty, and depending on what decision he made, it was a no-win situation. That’s one of the best uses of the Attorney General’s office is, when there’s a conflict, you kick it out to them.

If you were D.A., would you punt any case that involved a campaign contributor?
Not any case that involved a contributor. Unless it’s some major deal, I don’t think it’s necessary. When I came on the bench, it’s not like I had a list of contributors and I checked to see if they had any relationship.

It wasn’t just that [Dougherty] was a contributor. He was a major political supporter. So it wouldn’t necessarily be improper, but the appearance would be questionable. And I just don’t need the aggravation of it.

Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham’s policy was to refer cases involving basically any elected official to state or federal authorities, if she had a political conflict of interest. Would you do that?
I think so, yes. I think she made a good call. She put a wall up there, and you don’t have to worry about any conflicts.

It’s better to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Any situation that’s going to be questionable politically, I think you should get it out of the office.

Another controversial decision that Williams made was to retain employees of his that were caught up in the Porngate scandal, sending them to sensitivity training instead of firing them. Was that the right decision?
No, he hired employees that were supposedly caught up in that. And I don’t think that was a good decision. I don’t think they should have been hired.

He should not have inserted himself into what was going on in the Attorney General’s office. We have enough going on here for him to get involved in whatever’s going on up there. It was just inappropriate, brought bad attention to the city, brought more problems on his head, and raised the ire of the local female politician community.

What do you think of his choice to not charge LeSean McCoy for his role in an alleged bar fight that left two off-duty cops hospitalized?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know that I have seen the whole videotape, but from what I did see, I don’t know who was the aggressor. It just looked like a bit of a drunken brawl, and who started it, who finished it, who got hurt worst, it’s really hard to say. But I don’t know whether that was a good call or not. Maybe if I saw the whole tape, I’d have a different opinion. You can’t go by a little clip that you see on TV to say whether or not it was a good decision.

Civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement officials to seize cash and property without a conviction, is a topic that has come up in the news recently. The District Attorney’s office has utilized the practice a lot. What’s your position on it?
I’m ready to all but dismantle that situation. It’s being applied unfairly, and I don’t believe everything I read in the paper, but I read in the paper that the office was depending on the forfeiture for 20 percent of its budget. That’s totally inappropriate. It gives incentive to seize property that shouldn’t be seized. The cases we do see reported in the paper are just patently unfair, so I don’t know whether the whole program is like that. But 20 percent of the budget? It sounds like they’re seizing a lot of the property. And it’s not from drug kingpins; it’s from people’s homes, and I think that’s wrong.

Can you be more specific about how much of the program you would dismantle? Would you not allow civil asset forfeiture at all, or would you do it in certain cases?
They’re seizing property from people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime.

So would you not seize assets unless someone had been convicted of a crime?
Even if they were convicted of passing a bag of weed on the street, would I take someone’s home? No, it’s disproportionate to the incident. I don’t think it’s fair.

Then when should it be used, if ever?
If you find a drug kingpin driving around with a huge amount of drugs and/or money in his car, or you raid a place and that’s what you find, that’s a different story. Not some kid getting involved in something stupid. To take people’s homes that they’ve been paying for for decades? No, it’s wrong.

Everything depends on a case-by-case basis. You can’t set a flat policy and say up until this amount, we’re going to take their house. All the circumstances have to be taken into account. But I think drug dealers are better targets than parents who are dealing with the fact that their children smoke weed and might be doing it outside on the sidewalk.

What’s your position on the death penalty?
In the most heinous cases, I think it should be sought. But it also depends on the feelings of the family of the victim, so I would take those things into consideration. I would not have a blanket policy that every case that’s eligible for the death penalty should go before a death-qualified jury because I think those juries are more inclined to give the death penalty, and I think it increases the probability of conviction.

You mentioned that part of the district attorney’s budget comes from civil asset forfeiture. Is there a policy you have in mind that would remove that financial incentive? Some have suggested giving it to the school district instead.
I’m not as familiar with the budget of the district attorney’s as I should be to be able to tell you where I would cut, but I guarantee there are places that could be cut that would not require peoples’ homes to be seized to fund the District Attorney’s office.

If the forfeiture situation shouldn’t be done, then it shouldn’t be done no matter who’s going to get the money. But if it sitting there is an incentive for the District Attorney’s office, it’s definitely not appropriate.

How would you cut fight crime in the city, which has decreased in some cases but is still way too frequent?
I would try to be a lot more visible. Now, I’ve seen Seth at some schools, but I would definitely like to visit every high school in the city and bring the government into the school. I remember when I was in Young Democrats as a teenager, and a state rep came out and talked to us. I was amazed that he thought we were important enough to come out and try to explain something to us, so I think that’s an important part of bringing the city into your consciousness.

Plus, there’s all kinds of Council advisory boards and things like that, and I think it’s important to meet with them throughout the year. It’s just important to stay in touch with your constituents and find out what is going on in their neighborhoods that’s upsetting them.

Are there any policies that you would adopt aimed at fighting crime or changing of focus in the District Attorney’s office, in terms of what you prosecute?
I don’t like marijuana smoking in public, and I think it should be on the same level as if you’re drinking in public. If you’re drinking in public, the court costs a lot. A citation can be over $100, whereas the marijuana situation is something like a $25 fine. I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to be walking around the city drinking beer or drinking hard liquor, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to be walking around the city using marijuana. I just think it’s wrong. You’re on a block, and there’s a bunch of houses, and your child’s walking home from school, and why should your child walk by and see smoking marijuana as some sort of normalized behavior? Or drinking in the day or anything else? I just think it sets the wrong tone for the city, and that’s one thing I’ve heard complaints about, and I’d like to see that change. It’s a quality-of-life thing, and I think it’s fair to ask people to buy and smoke their smoke out of the realm of other people.

What should the penalty be for smoking marijuana outside?
The penalty for the alcohol should be the same for the marijuana. … The way that court works, if you go in and plead guilty to drinking alcohol outside, you’ll just pay the court cost. If you don’t show up, then, depending on the judge, they will impose a fine of up to $300, plus the court cost. Everybody’s got a different way of handling that.

How would you handle drug users as D.A.?
I believe that addiction is a mental health disorder like so many other mental health disorders, and that those of us in the criminal justice system have a responsibility to find as many alternative ways to decriminalize addiction and to treat addiction. As D.A., I will work with law enforcement to divert addicts to treatment, detox, mental health services and other programs that will prevent crimes from being committed because of an addiction. On the other hand, those addicts that commit serious violent offenses will be prosecuted along with receiving treatment services. Additionally, diversionary programs must provide a realistic path to expungement for nonviolent offenders, which includes addicts.

[For drug dealers], it is my position that serious drug offenders face the penalties provided within the current bounds of the law with particular attention being paid to those drug dealers at the top of the totem pole in terms of distribution. I think for small street dealers, we need to take a more restorative approach to criminal justice in providing real rehabilitation and growth opportunities within the prison construct and lobbying city, state and federal government to provide more resources for ex-offenders to find gainful employment. Drug-dealing is a complex issue that encompasses every facet of life in our local neighborhoods and communities, and I will work with those in the system and policymakers to ensure that our communities are safe, but also lobbying to provide more opportunities so that so many young men don’t fall prey to the streets of drug-dealing.

Michael Untermeyer, another D.A. candidate, has proposed charging more people with homicide who have delivered drugs resulting in death. What do you think of that approach?
Untermeyer’s position is ludicrous and dangerous. There is no reason that we should be extending the law to include homicide if there was no intent, with all of the reforms occurring in criminal justice throughout the country on both sides of the aisle. His position is to the extreme right of many conservatives in his former party.

Do you believe there is a racial disparity in sentencing? If so, how should it be addressed?
It’s possible, but I don’t know. We have so many African-Americans on the bench at this point that — and I don’t think it’s just a question of what the race of the person imposing the penalty is — but we’re in a bubble here where interracial relations are kind of normalized. You go outside the city, and people are not as comfortable with each other as we are here. So I tend to think there’s maybe less disparity in a big city than there might be in a surrounding community. I can’t be sure. … I don’t know what the figures are.

Black Lives Matter argues that bad cops aren’t held accountable enough under the current justice system. Do you agree with that? Do you think that Seth Williams has done a good job of prosecuting police officers that have broken the law?
I am not as familiar with the specifics of his record. The one issue that I know has been tried to be imposed in the legislature is that [when police shoot civilians], the identity of the shooter would not be released until an investigation has begun. I don’t think it should be a law, but I think it should be a policy. [Civilians] who are accused or suspected do not have their names released in cases, so I think it’s only fair that the police get the same consideration. As far as his policy of prosecuting the police, I can’t say I’m familiar with what cases he has outstanding in his office as to whether or not he’s dragging his feet. So I can’t take a position.

You said that police officers who shoot civilians should be given the same treatment as civilians suspected of crimes, and you said suspects’ names aren’t released, but that’s not true. The police department very often says to the public, “This is a suspect. We’re looking for this person.”
They say they’re a person of interest if they’re trying to find somebody. But normally you’ll see that they don’t release the names, unless they know who they’re looking for, and then they say “a person of interest.”

The point is they release their names when they’re ordinary citizens. What’s the difference?
When it’s a police officer, of course they know who it is. Is it a crime or not? That has to be investigated first.

The difference is … the Black Lives Matter, I guess. Because, apparently, if a name is released, there’s some kind of public pressure on the person and their families and I think that, because they’re in a special situation, where they are putting their lives on the line, that you don’t want to subject them to extra harassment unless the situation calls for their names to be released.

It’s a very dynamic situation usually and you have to give the police the benefit of the doubt as you give everybody at the beginning of the investigation, not rushing out there with their names. They’re taken off of street duty immediately if their gun is fired and an investigation takes place. Now they’re actually going to do it differently. They have this best practices policy, and I’m trying to look at how they think it should be done, but they have new procedures that they’re suggesting and I think will help the situation develop maybe with not as much volatility.

The number of opioid deaths in Philadelphia has skyrocketed in recent years. What can be done in the District Attorney’s office to address that, if anything?
This is probably my biggest gripe with the current administration: The District Attorney’s office basically dismantled, through its prosecution, the narcotics squad in the city. And once the police were accused, all the people that the police had helped to convict were all released and turned back on the street and now we have a wide-open Kensington Avenue where it’s advertised that we’ve got the cheapest, purest heroin and now nobody’s getting arrested. I think … not those same police, because if I were them I wouldn’t go back and do it again either. I mean, it’s risky, very risky. But they need to resurrect, so to speak, a narcotics unit, and Kensington Avenue has got to be shut down. The District Attorney’s office has sent a signal that the drug crimes are not going to be prosecuted, the police aren’t going to be believed. It’s the wrong message. So that is a major thing: Get the drug dealers. They’re starting now, if there’s a death resulting in a drug delivery, to prosecute higher. That should be a dissuasion to some people who think that this is the only way that they can make a living.

You’re talking about the Philadelphia narcotics squad officers that were charged by the feds, but acquitted? Seth Williams decided, years before they were acquitted, that he would not accept cases involving those officers’ investigations. You think that was the wrong call?
Absolutely. Especially before they even went to trial, to tell the police that you’re no longer taking their cases and then you go about dismissing the cases that have already been prosecuted, hundreds and hundreds of cases.

Seth Williams has been criticized for the gifts he has received on the job. Would you take gifts?
No. Absolutely not. There should have been a no-gift policy from the beginning. How can he prosecute state legislators for taking gifts, without any evidence that they were going to perform an official action for those gifts, and then not consider in his own mind that he’s doing the same thing? That seems either completely thoughtless or totally hypocritical. So, it’s mind-boggling, actually.

District attorney candidate Richard Negrin announced that he is not going to take campaign donations from defense attorneys he might stand across from in court. Are you putting any limit on the kinds of donors that can donate to you?
Whatever the ethics committee says is acceptable is fine with me. I am not being chased around by a lot of big donors. So it’s really not an issue. It’s pretty much a grassroots campaign with a lot of small contributions.

What about super PACs? Should they be involved in the district attorney’s race?
These are local elections and I think the local people should decide money-wise and vote-wise who gets the job. I wouldn’t want to see big money come into the city and take control of our elections. That would be a disaster. I would reject super PACs.

Are you seeking support from the Fraternal Order of Police?
I am.

How do you think the District Attorney’s unit aimed at reviewing potentially wrongful convictions has done under Williams? Would you make any changes to it?
I would want to have a unit because I think some cases have to be looked at, even if it’s just the sentencing that was unjust. I understand they have some good people monitoring that, but I would like to have some more aggressive people looking into that.

Across the country, especially when there’s a DNA concern, I don’t see a reason to oppose somebody having DNA evidence that they didn’t have access to before be introduced into their case as a basis for maybe taking another hard look at that case. Because there have been a number of people who’ve been freed based on that evidence and they’ve done decades in jail. So I definitely think, if it’s one simple test, that we should go for it. If they believe that that’s going to free them, then we should consider it.

In Philadelphia, we lock up more people per capita than any other big city. Does the D.A. have a role in addressing that?
We spend more money on incarceration than we do on education. That’s the big notice for Philadelphia. The D.A. has got to participate in the goal of the MacArthur Grant, which is to reduce the incarceration population by 30 percent within three to five years.

What’s your position on cash bail?
You put these big numbers on people and it’s a joke because they know — everyone knows — that they’re never going to pay that money. If they have a home situation, if they have a job or any evidence of stability or attempted stability, that should be used as currency to get them out of jail without coming up with cash. People think it’s a little bit of money to come up with $500. It’s not.

[Reducing the use of cash bail] is a part of the goals of the MacArthur Grant. Marsha Neifield and the President Judge and the Administrative Judge of the Common Pleas Courts are all working feverishly to reduce the population of the prisons. And it’s got to be done because they’re overcrowded and they shouldn’t be. Sometimes somebody gets arrested and they have a drug problem and you kind of want to leave them in there for a couple of days to sober up. Okay, that’s one thing. But when it comes for month to month to month, then it’s overkill.

Some D.A. candidates want to get rid of cash bail altogether for nonviolent, low-level offenders. What do you think?
I don’t know about altogether. But in many situations, it’s unnecessary and they’re never going to collect the money anyway. They have other options, like reporting centers and things like that. Of course, you can’t tell somebody who’s got a job to go to a reporting center every day. They’ve got to go to their job every day. They have a job they want to keep. You can’t destroy their job over a fistfight on the street or something like that. It used to be that you get into a little skirmish on the schoolyard and people were not dragged off by the police. Everything is so over-criminalized. Years ago, it just wasn’t treated the same. And it’s partly because of the industrialization of criminal justice and how many people are relying on those jobs for their support to keep the population flowing. We have to do a correction on that. We have to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I want to talk to a little bit about the domestic violence unit. We have some terrific programs. But one of the new things that’s coming on the table is the restorative justice element in domestic violence. I went to this seminar at Temple and they were talking about restorative justice in sex cases. I think it’s more appropriate to look at it in domestic violence cases, because most often in domestic violence cases, there is a relationship, even a family unit, maybe children involved. And what happens is, sometimes you can have the same complainant making a complaint against the same defendant, maybe five times in a row, and really what you’re doing is putting him in jail for a couple months to quiet the situation down and there’s no real counseling. Or if there is counseling through a diversion program, it’s always focused on the man, when the man is usually the accused.

I think that if restorative justice were an option, then you would have a little bit of couples counseling to try to improve the communication of the people or address the underlying issue, whether or not it’s a drug or alcohol situation, and have a little more investigation into how much the kids are seeing of this. I think it would go deeper into the problem than just locking somebody up for a couple of months, until things calm down, and then she doesn’t show up in court, the case is over, and nothing really changes until the next time. That’s one area where I’d like to see restorative justice tried in new programs.

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