What Anna Stubblefield Believed She Was Doing

Anna Stubblefield during her trial in October 2015. Credit Jonno Rattman for The New York Times

In late December, Anna Stubblefield — a former chairwoman of the philosophy department at Rutgers University in Newark, mother of two and fervent activist for social justice — sat down to write a letter on narrow-ruled, legal-size paper. “Your Honor,” she began, “I write to ask for your mercy.”

About three months earlier, Anna was found guilty of raping a man with disabilities on the floor of her campus office. Now it was several weeks before her sentencing on two counts of aggravated sexual assault — a crime that calls for 10 to 40 years in prison — and she meant to tell Judge Siobhan Teare what brought her to this point. “I was deeply in love,” she wrote from prison, referring to the person she was convicted of assaulting — a black man with cerebral palsy known as “D.J.” in the news media. “I believed that he and I were intellectual equals, and that our romantic relationship was consensual and mutually loving. I intended no harm, and I had nothing to gain.”

From the start, Anna claimed that the “rape” was nothing of the kind, but rather a long-simmering and unlikely romance that, after much sensitive discussion, had at last been consummated. D.J. can neither talk nor dress himself, but Anna argued that he was able to communicate using a keyboard, as long as she was there to hold his hand and give support. “I’ve dreamed about this,” she said he typed the first time they tried to have sex.

Shortly after her conviction, I wrote an account of the events leading up to Anna’s trial for the magazine. That article raised as many questions as it answered: If D.J. really was incapable of giving his consent — if, as the jury decided, his typed-out messages were Anna’s words, not his — then how could their “romance” have progressed? Did Anna fall for D.J. or for some dissociated aspect of herself: her sense of empathy, her good intentions, her need to be a savior? And what if the jury had it wrong? What then for Anna and for D.J.?

The major figures in the case have not yet answered these questions, but since the trial, each has had the chance to make their feelings known. The most extensive statement came from Anna herself. Her five-page jailhouse letter, written in meticulous longhand, recounts the background of her love affair with D.J.: the deep commitment of her parents to the cause of disability rights and her own lifelong pursuit of the same ideals. By age 11, she said, she was already working with her mother to help a teenage girl with cerebral palsy communicate using a computer. “Thus, when I met [D.J.], I saw him as someone I could potentially help as a friend,” she wrote. “And then something happened that took me by surprise — we fell in love.”

On the day of her sentencing last month, Anna sat before Judge Teare in person, wearing a formless pink jumpsuit and with her hands in chains. Since the trial, her pixie haircut had grown out gray and shaggy. A crowd of friends — mostly fellow travelers in the field of disability studies — watched the hearing from the gallery. A three-person documentary film crew gathered tape from the jury box. “I’m interested in this as a love story,” the director told me later. (Since publishing my article, I have also heard from playwrights, poets and producers. The other day, I met for tea with a composer, who described his plan to render Anna’s story as an opera, with the court transcript as his libretto.)

“She was a woman who had fallen in love, your honor,” said her lawyer, James Patton. “The only reason we’re here is that Ms. Stubblefield disclosed the relationship to the family. She intended no harm and anticipated no harm.”

The state argued just the opposite — that Anna had done her best to isolate and groom her victim. The typed-out messages that she attributed to D.J., including those she claimed would prove that he is competent, were never introduced at trial; the judge ruled them unreliable, because Anna’s method of assisting D.J., called “facilitated communication,” has been rejected by the mainstream scientific community. (That ruling on the messages will probably serve as the basis for an appeal.) “If she loved him, she would not have acted the way that she did,” the assistant prosecutor said during his closing argument in October. When D.J.’s legal guardians — his brother and his mother — first learned about the relationship in 2011, they did not go to the police but merely asked Anna to keep her distance. She ignored their wishes. “She disrespects their guardianship,” the prosecutor said. “She thinks she’s smarter than the law.”

Now, Anna’s lawyer tried to make the case that her punishment should be “stepped down” to something less than the minimum 10 years or even made probationary. Three psychologists had attested that she lacked malice and that she exhibited no pattern of deviant sexual behavior. “This is just a woman who grossly miscalculated the intelligence of the person she was involved with,” Patton said.

It was a sharp departure from what Anna said in her letter to the judge. For all her expressions of remorse, she had made it very clear that she did not “miscalculate” D.J.’s intellect. She will not budge — will never budge, perhaps — from her first appraisal: “It became apparent through objective evidence that he was the author of his words and a very intelligent man,” she wrote. “I deeply regret the choices we made in response to that development in our relationship.”

That plural “we” runs throughout the letter, as if Anna could not resist the call to speak for D.J., even when she knew that call had cost her everything. “Had we anticipated his family’s reaction, we would have waited,” she wrote. “He would have talked with his family and pursued emancipation from the guardianship, and I would have used the time to obtain a divorce. That would have been a better path all around.”

Her crime, as she now appears to understand it, amounted to a catastrophic social error: a failure to communicate, not with D.J. but with his family and her own. For all the pain she says she caused D.J.’s family, her ex-husband, Roger, and their children, she orients her letter toward the miserable indignity that has befallen the man she loved and loves. He is the one who has been reclassified as cognitively impaired, deprived of basic human rights, made to live without his keyboard and returned once more to the prison of meager expectations. “I especially regret that, due to the actions in which I engaged,” she wrote, D.J. “lost access to his means of communication and his hopes of furthering his education and attaining self-determination in his life.”

In the courtroom, though, Anna offered none of this. When it was her turn to speak, she said only: “I wanted to express my dismay and my regret and my sorrow that my actions have caused so much distress, and I’m very, very sorry for that.”

Anna’s 16-year-old daughter, Zoe, also spoke during the sentencing hearing. “My mom is a very good person,” she declared. Zoe’s father, Roger Stubblefield, had been abusive to them, she said, which is why her mother “ran off with a disabled man to begin with.” Zoe described her mother’s kindness and open-mindedness, and the injustice of her prosecution: “She’s like the cleanest, most goody-goody-two-shoes person I’ve ever met. And now she’s gone. Thank you.” When the judge eyed her impassively, she snapped, “Stop looking so bored,” and went back to her seat.

D.J.’s brother, Wesley (referred to here by his middle name), gave a statement that he wrote ahead of time. He began by saying that his family had been told that D.J. wouldn’t live to see his third birthday and that 34 years later D.J. was a beautiful brother and a beautiful son. Then he recalled the moment at the end of Stubblefield’s trial, when the verdict was announced and Anna cried out, “Who is going to take care of my daughter?” It was as if the question had only just occurred to her, Wesley suggested. It was as if only then had she considered the meaning of the bond between a mother and her child. How else could you explain her actions — “the rape of my brother, the harassment of my family, her condescending attitude toward my mother?”

“She tried to lay claim to him and rename him,” he said of Anna, breaking into sobs. Early in Anna’s relationship with D.J., she started calling him by a nickname — one she said he asked for in his typed-out messages. In her view, this was an act of self-determination. But to Wesley, it was a way of taking ownership, with all the echoes of slavery the word implies.

As an academic — and Wesley’s graduate-school professor — Anna had been a scholar of racial ethics; in one paper, she even wrote that well-meaning white people like her “all too often invade or destroy the space of nonwhite people.” Now Wesley called her out for what he saw as that very behavior. She had tried to overlay her values and her views, he said, on the people she pretended to be helping. “She tried to supplant [D.J.’s] life — a life steeped in the history and culture of his God-fearing, Southern-rooted, African-American family — with some version of life she thought was better.”

It’s time to stop thinking of this case as being “simply strange,” he continued, and imagining Anna as some kind of “tragic she-ro.” (He may have been referring to my article, which was published under the headline “The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield.”) If the genders were reversed, he said — if D.J. were “Diana” and Anna were “Anthony” — then the details would seem more mundane: a tragic tale of sexual abuse. “Anna is not Sandra Bullock, and this is not ‘The Blind Side,’” he said to the judge. Then, directly to his former teacher: “An able-bodied woman raped a disabled young man that could not consent to sex. You were wrong, Anna. You committed a crime. There is no gray area.” As Wesley spoke, Zoe screamed an expletive at him from the gallery. “You’re a liar!” she shouted as a bailiff pulled her from the courtroom.

When Judge Teare at last addressed the court, it was in a tone of practiced weariness. “I have thought long and hard,” she said. Dozens of Anna’s friends and colleagues — philosophers, disability activists, practitioners of facilitated communication and their clients — had written letters of support, painting Anna as caring and compassionate. But the judge read from only one submission, from Anna’s ex-husband, Roger. “I am shocked that Anna and her handlers would spin this incident as a disabilities-rights case in a weak attempt to deflect Anna’s willful participation when she should have known better,” Roger wrote. He said that his daughter had been turned against him and that he had been abandoned and betrayed and treated as “just another chunk of collateral damage.” Now his son has dropped out of school, he wrote, “and I fear that he is indulging in harmful pursuits.”

“I do believe that Anna is a pathological liar and narcissistic,” Roger’s letter went on. “I believe it possible that given any opportunity she would definitely repeat the effort to pose herself as Anne Sullivan to Helen Keller, or perhaps a martyr like Anne Frank. She will stop at nothing to fool the court and seek vindication, regardless of the emotional and financial expense to her family or the primary victim’s family.”

Finally, the judge delivered her own appraisal of the facts. The defendant believes she was in love with D.J., she said, and never meant to hurt anyone. Still, Anna knowingly and wantonly overstepped the bounds of lawful behavior. She violated the terms of D.J.’s guardianship because she decided, on her own, that the courts were wrong — and that she knew better than the State of New Jersey.

Judge Teare allowed that Anna was, by most accounts, a well-meaning and empathic person. But the very fact of her respectability seemed to make her more blameworthy, not less so. Several times, the judge cited Anna’s intelligence — her “high intellect” — as a point against her. Anna was smart enough to see through the illusion of D.J.’s facilitated typing. She was smart enough to realize that she didn’t have consent. She was smart enough to know that D.J. wasn’t smart.

At the bottom of her letter to the judge, Anna had made one final plea and one final statement of her faith: “I am writing this letter from my cell in the Essex County Correctional Facility,” she said. “Thank you for taking the time to read it. I hope that it has helped you to understand that my actions were motivated by love, and my love was grounded in my belief in [D.J.’s] intelligence and humanity.”

But Judge Teare remained unmoved, concluding that “the aggravating factors clearly outweigh the mitigating factors.” Earlier, she called Anna “the perfect example of a predator preying on her prey.” Now she gave the sentence: Anna would get 12 years in prison. The first 10 years, 2 months and 13 days would be served with no possibility of parole.

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