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In a rare move, the Philadelphia Bar Association has issued a statement through its chancellor against a ruling in a rape case by a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge.

Although the letter from Chancellor Jane Leslie Dalton of Duane Morris doesn’t suggest that the bar’s Commission on Judicial Selection and Retention would reverse its “recommended” rating of Judge Teresa Carr Deni, it comes pretty close.

On Oct. 4, Deni ruled there was not enough evidence to move forward with rape charges against a man accused of raping a prostitute at gunpoint.

Instead, Deni said the appropriate charge was armed robbery for “theft of services.”

In her statement, Dalton said Deni’s ruling and further comments to the media indicate that she was ruling not based on the law but on personal opinion.

“It is not often that the Philadelphia Bar Association comments publicly on a judge’s ruling in a legal proceeding,” she said. “Indeed, the association has, as part of its mission, the preservation of a free and independent judiciary. This issue goes to the marrow of our existence as a free and independent people.”

Deni’s ruling, however, “compels” the bar to speak out, she said.

The letter pointed out that the ruling was issued just after the bar’s commission recommended retention of Deni in the Nov. 6 election. While the letter did not direct voters to vote against Deni, it did state that it was up to the individual voter whether to vote for her retention.

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

George Bochetto of Bochetto & Lentz represents Deni.

“Judge Deni made her decision based upon the evidence presented, not upon some newspaper account of the story,” Bochetto said. “Judge Deni finds Ms. Dalton’s comments regrettable.”

In an interview, Dalton said she doesn’t have the authority to undo the recommendation of the bar’s commission.

“I also don’t think one decision should be determinative,” she said.

A number of people, however, had raised concerns to Dalton about Deni’s decision, and she felt she should at least look at the transcripts of the case.

“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,” Dalton said in the letter. “We cannot imagine any circumstances more violent or coercive than having sex with four men at gunpoint.”

Dalton said she thinks she would have issued her statement regardless of whether there was an upcoming retention election.

“We have a system built on the rule of law, not a judicial whim or personal belief,” she said.

According to reports in the Philadelphia Daily News, the victim made arrangements through the Web site Craigslist to meet the defendant for sex for $150 for one hour. When she arrived, she agreed to have sex with a friend of the defendant for an additional $100. The friend showed up with no money and a gun was pulled and more men arrived, according to the report.

Deni told the Daily News a case like this “minimizes true rape cases.”

“Did she tell you she had another client before she went to report it?” Deni told the paper.

Deni said she knew she would “get killed on this” in terms of public outcry.

Dalton said in an interview that it didn’t make much sense for the bar’s judicial retention commission to reverse its decision to recommend Deni.

The bar would have had to convene the 30 members of the commission and decide whether they want to even review the case. If they decided in the affirmative, they would then have to give Deni the chance to come before the commission and argue why the recommendation should not be changed.

Dalton said the entire process wouldn’t have been completed until probably Thursday or Friday. She said that wasn’t enough time before the election to have any real impact.

She said in the letter that the original recommendation was made after reviewing Deni’s body of work over the past six years.

Chris Gillotti, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Judicial Evaluation Committee, said the group has never reversed one of its recommendations.

The committee only evaluates appellate judges, so it would be rare that such a judge would write an opinion that would require review, he said.

The committee avoided having to review its decision on Superior Court Judge Michael T. Joyce because he decided not to seek retention after he was indicted on insurance fraud charges, Gillotti said.

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