Opposition is mounting against an Oklahoma judge who approved a plea deal allowing a man who raped a 13-year-old girl while volunteering at a Baptist church camp to avoid prison.
More than 103,000 people have signed a petition calling for Marshall County District Judge Wallace Coppedge’s removal from the bench for approving a lenient sentence for Benjamin Lawrence Petty, who admitted to tying up and raping a Texas girl at Falls Creek Conference Center in 2016.
Coppedge, a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Sunday school worker at Calvary Baptist Church in Tishomingo, Okla., signed off on a plea deal in January sentencing the 36-year-old camp cook to probation. A separate civil lawsuit alleging negligence by parties including the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma is working its way through the court system.
Republican lawmaker Mike Ritze, a deacon and Sunday school teacher at Arrow Heights Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Okla., introduced a resolution in the Oklahoma legislature asking a judicial review board to begin removal proceedings against the judge the representative believes “has lost the trust of the public he serves.”
“Allowing this offender to effectively walk out of the justice system without any real consequences to raping a 13-year-old girl is unconscionable,” Ritze said in a statement. “It’s unthinkable that a judge could look at this case and allow this plea to be accepted.”
Coppedge, presiding district judge at the Marshall County Courthouse in Madill, Okla., sentenced Petty to 15 years’ probation in exchange for guilty pleas to first-degree rape, forcible sodomy and rape by instrumentation, all felonies.
Murray County Assistant District Attorney David Pyle, who negotiated the guilty plea, told The Oklahoman the girl’s parents agreed to the deal after being told the rapist “would not serve any meaningful prison time” because he is legally blind.
It is unclear whether the judge knew that at the time. He isn’t talking to media, but a court transcript quoted by The Oklahoman depicts the jurist as cutting off the victim’s attorney mid-sentence.
Asked by Judge Coppedge if the victim and her parents “are comfortable” with the plea bargain, attorney Bruce Robertson replied: “Well, they were comfortable with the plea based upon the assertions that have been made that Mr. Petty would, in fact, plead guilty to the three felonies and admit that he had committed ….”
“Well, they are or they’re not,” the judge interjected “Are they?”
“I’m sorry?” Robertson said.
“They either are or are not,” the judge said.
“Yes, your honor,” Robertson said.
“They are?” the judge said.
“Yes,” Robertson said.
Asked by the judge if there was anything more “you want me to know before I announce my sentence,” the attorney responded, “No, your honor.”
The Oklahoman reported March 4 this is not the first time Coppedge let a child rapist avoid prison. In seven years on the bench, the newspaper found, the judge granted probation in at least seven other felony sex crimes.
The assistant prosecutor who offered the plea bargain resigned when the story started showing up in national news, turning public anger toward the judge who could have rejected the agreement and ordered the case to trial.
“Even though the plea was negotiated with the victim’s parents’ permission, the terms of the sentence are absolutely ridiculous,” says an online petition with a goal of 110,000 names. “The fact that Petty was legally blind does not bar him from being able to serve prison time for his heinous crimes.”
“District Judge Wallace Coppedge should not have allowed the plea deal,” the petition declares. “Sign now to have him removed from the bench immediately.”
A hearing is scheduled this week in Oklahoma County District Court on a motion by Country Estates Baptist Church of Midwest City, Okla. — the congregation that brought Petty to camp — seeking permission to question the teenager identified as Jane Doe about her sexual history prior to the rape.
The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, while disputing liability in the case, filed a court document saying lawyers for the Southern Baptist Convention affiliate “have no interest in questioning the minor about her sexual past.”
BGCO lawyers “have not participated in discovery or otherwise litigated this case in a manner that is harassing, embarrassing or otherwise offensive” toward the victim or her family, the response says, and “do not intend to do so at any point in the future.”
A third defendant, First Baptist Church in Terrell, Texas, says the girl disclosed in counseling “prior sexual abuse by her paternal uncle numerous times from as early as she could remember until she was eight years old,” prompting investigation by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.