Benjamin Lawrence Petty was a cook at the church camp where a 13-year-old girl reported that he tied her up and raped her.
It was June 16, 2016, when Petty approached the girl inside the cabin where he was stationed as a cook at the Falls Creek church camp in southern Oklahoma. He invited her to the back of the cabin, saying that he wanted to show her something — and then he pulled her into his private bedroom, according to a lawsuit filed against Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, which runs the camp, and Country Estates Baptist Church, which was in charge of hiring the cabin staff.
Petty then shut the door, tied her hands behind her back and pushed her face down onto the bed. He told her not to tell, or else he would hurt her, the lawsuit claims.
In January, Petty pleaded guilty to the charges — first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation.
But Petty will serve no prison time. A judge approved a plea deal, which called for a sentence of 15 years probation, two years with an ankle monitor and a lifetime on the sex offender registry.
The reason a prosecutor gave for why he did not seek to put Petty behind bars: Petty is legally blind.
That prosecutor, David Pyle, resigned Jan. 31 after public backlash over Petty’s sentence. But the backlash has continued, now targeted at Marshall County District Judge Wallace Coppedge, because he had the discretion to reject the plea deal but instead approved it.
More than 102,000 people have called for his removal from the bench in an online petition. Calls for Coppedge’s removal escalated further after an Oklahoma lawmaker filed a resolution in the House seeking to remove Coppedge, though it has yet to be voted on.
The online petition is directed at the Oklahoma Council on Judicial Complaints, which can review allegations and, if warranted, recommend that the state’s Court on the Judiciary remove a judge.
“Even though the plea was negotiated with the victim’s parents’ permission, the terms of the sentence are absolutely ridiculous,” the petition states. “The fact that Petty was legally blind does not bar him from being able to serve prison time for his heinous crimes.”
Coppedge, presiding district judge for Oklahoma’s 20th District Court, was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014. His term expires in 2019. Under Oklahoma law, judges are automatically reelected if unopposed.
The controversy intensified Sunday after the Oklahoman published its review of criminal court records in which Coppedge presided over child-rape cases. The newspaper found that Coppedge had allowed confessed child rapists or convicted pedophiles to avoid prison at least seven times before.
The district attorney in charge of the 20th district, Craig Ladd, provided explanations to the Oklahoman in those cases, including problems with witnesses and a lack of evidence. In one case, a father was charged with raping by instrumentation four girls he had recently adopted. After a 2016 plea deal that involved giving up his parental rights, he was sentenced to 20 years of probation, the Oklahoman reported. Ladd said witness problems were so severe that the only alternative was dismissal. In another case, Coppedge approved five years of probation for a man who pleaded guilty to raping his unconscious ex-girlfriend, though probation was later revoked due to violations.
Ladd did not come to the defense of Pyle, the prosecutor in the Petty case. Just days after Petty was sentenced, Ladd announced that he “strongly disagreed with the lenient manner” in which Petty was prosecuted and said that Pyle had resigned.
Coppedge, the judge, did not respond immediately to a request for comment about why he decided to approve the deal and has declined to comment elsewhere, but a court transcript obtained by the Oklahoman provided some insight. The chief reason, Coppedge reportedly said from the bench, was that the victim’s parents consented to the deal.
The victim and her legal guardian are seeking more than $75,000 in damages in a separate lawsuit filed against the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, Country Estates Baptist Church and First Baptist Church of Terrell, Tex., the church through which the victim attended the camp. The lawsuit accuses the churches of negligence, claiming they failed to conduct background checks on Petty and should not have allowed him unsupervised time alone with the victim.
The victim’s attorney, Bruce Robertson, said the family consented because they thought the plea deal was the only option. “ … The family was told by the district attorney’s office that the rapist would not serve any meaningful prison time due to his medical conditions. The family was not provided any other alternative,” Robertson told the Oklahoman.
The public backlash in this rape case, particularly the criticism lobbed at the judge, recalls the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer who was sentenced to six months in jail after being convicted of raping a student behind a dumpster. Dozens of people launched a campaign to remove the judge on that case, California Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, in the weeks after Turner’s sentence. The “Recall Judge Aaron Persky” campaign, led by Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, succeeded in January at getting its call for Persky’s removal on the ballot in June. But the effort has been controversial and has even led to rape threats targeting Dauber.
The future of the calls for the judge’s removal in Oklahoma is uncertain.
In February, just before it was up for a vote, a resolution to remove Coppedge was put on hold by state Rep. Mike Ritze (R), saying that lawmakers had bigger issues to tackle for the time being. The resolution would have asked the Oklahoma Court on the Judiciary to begin removal proceedings. It would not have been legally binding, and the Oklahoma defense bar opposed it, saying Coppedge was only doing his job in approving a deal reached by both parties.
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