Anna Stubblefield, a professor of ethics at Rutgers, was working alongside a research partner in 2010 on a paper he was writing for a conference when she realised she had feelings for him.
After spending countless hours together, reading books, having conversations, and sharing intimate details of their lives, Stubblefield recalled “I began to gradually be aware that I was having romantic feelings,” according to a new story in The New York Times Magazine.
On its own, that is not a shocking revelation. Many adults who have have professional relationships eventually develop romantic feelings for one another.
But for Stubblefield, now 45, the situation led to criminal charges; the now-34-year-old man she had the relationship with, known as D.J., had such severe cerebral palsy that he couldn’t speak or go to the bathroom on his own. The state declared him to have the mental capacity of a toddler, though Stubblefield disagrees with that assessment.
Earlier this month, a jury convicted her of sexually assaulting D.J. after deliberating for just three hours, according to NJ.com. She’ll be sentenced on November 9 and could go to state prison for 10 to 40 years.
The New York Times wrote about the case in a stunning profile that was equal parts discomforting and heart-wrenching.
Stubblefield began working with D.J. in 2009 at the behest of his brother, Wesley, who was a Ph.D-track student in her class.
She used a controversial method called facilitated communication (F.C.) with D.J. It’s controversial because there are differing opinions on whether F.C. is actually effective.
Many experts have debunked the technique, calling it the ideomotor effect, meaning a person’s personal beliefs trigger unconscious movement, much like movement on a Ouija board.
Still, Stubblefield believes the method provides a way for the severely disabled to communicate. When she met D.J., she used F.C., first encouraging him to point to objects, and gradually working up to the point where he could spell words on a hand-held keyboard to have conversations. D.J. couldn’t operate the keyboard on his own, so Stubblefield would support his arm and help guide him when necessary.
After three decades of silence, it seemed D.J. was finally able to communicate with the outside world.
D.J.’s family was elated.
But the family’s elation quickly turned to horror on Memorial Day 2011 when Stubblefield announced that she and D.J. were in love.
After repeatedly telling Stubblefield to stay away from D.J., and her continued attempts to get in contact with him, P. and Wesley alerted the authorities to the sexual relationship between Stubblefield and D.J.
The trial began in September, and the prosecution described Stubblefield as a respected professor who took advantage of a severely disabled man to satisfy her sexual desires and further her career, NJ.com wrote.
The case also hinged on whether or not F.C is a valid technique, with the prosecution hammering on the fact that many experts believe it to be a bogus approach. “It’s become the single most scientifically discredited intervention in all of developmental disabilities,” James Todd, a psychology professor at Eastern Michigan University, testified for the state.
After the trial, a juror explained why they convicted Stubblefield.
“Especially the communications she was supposedly having with (D.J.) and that he was doing all of this talking, we didn’t believe it,” the juror told NJ.com.
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