Deni hopes to move from bench to Philly DA’s office

     Teresa Carr Deni is a candidate for Philadelphia district attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Teresa Carr Deni is a candidate for Philadelphia district attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    After 21 years as a Municipal Court Judge, Teresa Carr Deni hopes to move into Philadelphia’s district attorney’s office without ever having prosecuted a case.

    Deni is one of seven Democratic candidates for district attorney this year, one of only two who’ve never worked as a prosecutor.

    She’s sees that as an asset.

    “I don’t come in with any previous outline of how things should go, and I think the office needs a fresh start,” Deni said in an interview. “So I think, actually, it’s an advantage that I’m not bringing prior experience as far as that goes.”

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    Deni got into the race last year before incumbent Seth Williams, beset by legal and ethical issues, decided not to seek re-election.

    She’s proud of her background — a mom of two, and one of seven kids of a union railroad worker. She graduated from Hallahan, then Temple and Temple Law School.

    She’s the only woman in the Democratic primary, but she doesn’t want you to vote for her just for that reason.

    “I think more women should step up (and run for office), but I run on my record,” Deni said.

    Toughness and fairness

    Like most of the candidates in the race, Deni talked about the need for more justice and fairness in the system — diverting drug cases to treatment programs; reforming the bail system to make it less burdensome on the poor; and restructuring the controversial program of the seizing the assets of suspects in criminal investigations.

    “I think that it’s immoral,” Deni said. “We are taking homes from people whose relatives might be exchanging a bag of weed in front of their house and they don’t even know about it. And before anybody is being convicted, the home is being seized.”

    But Deni is probably also the most inclined among the Democratic field to talk about law and order.

    She said she won’t rule out seeking the death penalty for serious offenses.

    “I am not going to invite a terrorist into this city with some guarantee that they will not face the death penalty,” she said.

    Deni said the DA should focus on the small number of criminals who commit the bulk of serious offenses.

    “I live in the Northeast and my mother lived with me for 14 years, but I still wouldn’t let her go for a walk by herself, I don’t care what neighborhood you live in,” she said at a debate on Thursday. “There are some predators out there, and they’re the ones we have to focus on.”

    A controversial case

    Deni presided over thousands of cases in her years on the bench. One of them got her a lot of unwelcome attention.

    Deni drew criticism for her ruling in the preliminary hearing for a 2007 rape case in which the victim was a prostitute.

    She declined to hold the defendant for trial on the rape charge, and sustained a robbery charge.

    She was quoted at the time as saying that the woman “consented and didn’t get paid … I thought it was robbery.”

    The ruling and her comments to Daily News columnist Jill Porter drew fire from womens’ groups and the chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.

    Deni told me her ruling was misunderstood, and that prosecutors strengthened their case and eventually got a guilty plea from the rapist. She added that she’s “learned a lot more about sex trafficking since then.”

    When Deni ran for a retention election after the controversy, she was rated as “recommended” by the Bar Association. She was rated “not recommended” when she ran for the first time in 1995.

    The Bar Association doesn’t explain its ratings, but when Deni first ran, she was an attorney for the Democratic city committee, often doing campaign filings for ward leaders and committeepeople.

    Deni cites that work with pride, noting it helped her build relationships around the city.

    She disagrees with those who think ward leaders shouldn’t be picking candidates for judge or district attorney, and she rejects the idea that they’re political hacks.

    “I don’t think they’re hacks at all. I see them as community leaders,” Deni said. “You have ward leaders and committeepeople all over this city that are helping people navigate the system in Philadelphia. I mean these people are doing this work with no pay. So I think they get a bad rap.”

    You can hear more of my interview with Deni by playing the audio above.

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