Former judge Teresa Carr Deni wants to trade the bench for DA's office

In 1975, at the height of the women’s movement, Teresa Carr Deni co-founded Alexandria Books, one of Philadelphia’s first feminist bookstores.

It became a pre-internet gathering place where people went to read feminist newspapers from around the country. Deni says it also launched her interest in civil rights and the justice system.

“It all started from there. With women’s history, and women authors, and women involved in politics, it was a very exciting time,” Deni, a former municipal court judge, said last month.

Now, as the only woman among seven district attorney candidates in the May 16 Democratic primary, Deni has tried to highlight her activism and 21 years on the bench against the shadow of a ruling she made 10 years ago that drew international outrage from women’s groups.

In 2007, Deni presided over the case of a woman working as a prostitute who arranged, over Craigslist, to meet a man for sex. The woman testified that she was confronted by several men and then raped at gunpoint. As the Municipal Court judge assigned to the preliminary hearing, Deni reduced the charge against defendant Dominique Gindraw from rape to theft of services.

The District Attorney’s Office re-filed the case, and Gindraw pleaded guilty to rape and served seven years in prison, but the damage to Deni’s reputation was done.

Deni, 69, said in an interview that she knows more about sex trafficking now and would likely rule differently today.

“When the complainant spoke about the situation in such a business-like matter, that’s how I interpreted it,” she said. “I did what I thought was right, and it worked out how it worked out.”

Deni hopes voters will consider her entire career, which includes thousands of other cases and jobs in the City Solicitor’s Office and the Board of Revision of Taxes as well as criminal defense work.

Deni and civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner are the only two candidates who have not been prosecutors. For her, that’s a badge of honor, given the corruption charges facing current District Attorney Seth Williams and an office she says is slow to reform itself.

“Any one of those five candidates who’ve been in the DA’s Office is going to bring a culture that they were engrossed in,” she said. “I believe I could create a brand new culture because I’m not pulling from the past.”

Prosecutors, she said, have too often come before her in court looking for the most serious charges and the longest prison sentences. She wants to prioritize reform efforts and diversionary programs, such as the city’s mental health court, which she helped set up.

“In the past you’d get prosecutors trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be known as tough," Deni said. "I want to be known as fair.”

Deni’s views are in line with her competitors' on most issues, though she takes a slightly stricter stance on marijuana. She wants fines for smoking pot in public to be on par with open-container citations, which are currently higher. The fine for possession of a small amount of marijuana is $25. Open-container citations carry fines of $50 to $300.

“I think they are equally offensive, and I think anybody who has children understands that position,” said Deni, a mother of two sons, 18 and 12.

Deni has a somewhat controversial position on handling domestic violence cases: Get couples face-to-face counseling as part of a restorative justice program.

Deni said at least half of domestic violence cases are dismissed because complainants  don’t show up to court, having changed their minds often because of their emotional or financial ties to the defendant. A restorative justice program would allow the couple to sit down with a counselor and the complainant to decide whether to proceed with charges.

“Most of these cases originate in communication issues which are based in alcoholism, mental health, poverty, a fight about money,” Deni said. “And the communication skills don’t get any improvement.”

Deni, who lives in Northeast Philadelphia, graduated from J.W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School, and earned a degree in communications from Temple University and a law degree from the university’s night school.

She credits her election to the bench in 1996, in part, to her ability to befriend Democratic ward leaders during her time working at the Board of Revisions and Taxes. She also handled legal work for the Democratic City Committee.

After working for the city, Deni spent 10 years as a criminal defense lawyer and represented a dozen people facing the death penalty. Her experience on those cases, which were often defended on a shoestring budget, fuels her interest in beefing up the office’s conviction review unit. The four-member unit looks at inmates’ claims of innocence.

She sees a need to diversify the office, which she says is predominantly filled with white men.

“I reviewed the budget and there were twice as many men as women and the men were paid more than the women consistently,” Deni said. “There were twice as many whites as minorities, and whites were paid more than minorities.”

Deni credits much of her success to her Irish American mother, who raised her and her six siblings after her father, a union railroad worker, died at age 47. 

She says that, as district attorney, she  would work for all Philadelphians.

“I think the women’s movement was all about pulling up disenfranchised people; the category was just much larger then,” Deni said. “And I haven’t lost that in my heart.”

Profiles of DA Candidates

The Inquirer will publish profiles of the Democratic candidates for district attorney on these dates:

Teresa Carr Deni - Monday, May 1
Tariq El-Shabazz - Tuesday, May 2
Joe Khan - Wednesday, May 3
Lawrence Krasner - Thursday, May 4
Rich Negrin - Friday, May 5
Jack O'Neill - Monday, May 8
Michael Untermeyer - Tuesday, May 9​