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Tell Them You Love Me: the true story behind the trial of a professor who had sex with a non-verbal man

Anna Stubblefield, 41, a white tenured professor of ethics at Rutgers University in Newark, found herself on trial in 2015 for two counts of first-­degree aggravated sexual assault. Her alleged victim was Derrick Johnson, 30, a black man who with cerebral palsy and severe mental disabilities who had never spoken in his life.

Anna, who was married with two children, had been working with Derrick, believing that he had mental capacities that went far beyond those declared by the state. She was a disability activist who felt that established communication methods and IQ tests were not fit for many of the people taking them; if a patient couldn't read, write, communicate or was prone to muscle spasms, she thought, this didn't for a second mean that their brain wasn't sufficiently developed.

Anna and Derrick had been introduced by John, Derrick's brother, who was doing a PhD at Rutgers. John had watched the 2004 Oscar-­nominated documentary Autism Is a World in one of Anna's classes. The documentary is alleged to have been written by an autistic woman who had shared her story through facilitated communication (a method, which is discredited by large swathes of the scientific community, in which people who cannot communicate through ordinary speech communicate by pointing to keyboards or devices, their arm being guided or supported by a facilitator).

John had approached Anna after class, asking whether it would be possible to see whether Derrick too could learn to communicate using a keyboard, and so the first Saturday afternoon session between Derrick and Anna was arranged.

Anna Stubblefield (© Sky UK Limited)
Anna Stubblefield (© Sky UK Limited)

Derrick's family was keen and excited by the project; they too wanted to believe that Derrick's interior world could finally be unlocked through this controversial scientific technique. And it seemed to be: in dozens of sessions which took place over two years, Anna would cup her hand behind Derricks to help support his muscles, which often spasmed, and he would point to various pictures, and then later, type sentences on a keyboard – finally able to communicate after 30 years.

The family was thrilled. That was, until, in 2011, the unexpected happened: Anna told Derrick's mother that she and Derrick were in love, and had made love. During the tense meeting Derrick, via the keyboard, being steadied by Anna, said: "No one's been taken advantage of. I’ve been trying to seduce Anna for years, and she resisted valiantly," before writing "Kiss me" for Anna.

Now this extraordinary story is being explored in a Sky documentary film, produced by Louis Theroux's production company, Mindhouse. Directed by Nick August-Perna (The Oxy Kingpins), the documentary features interviews with Anna as well as Derrick's family. The documentary introduces Derrick, whose true identity was protected in the press for years (he was written about as D.J.): he is five foot and mute, and is restricted to expressing himself through irregular sounds.

The story is labyrinthine, fascinating and appalling. Derrick, we find out, wears nappies, requires 24-hour care and was declared by a clinical psychologist to have have limited cognitive capacity.

Anna and Derrick during one of their sessions (© Sky UK Limited)
Anna and Derrick during one of their sessions (© Sky UK Limited)

But Anna was, and remains, convinced by their love. According to the New York Times, after the family's crushing response to her declaration, which eventually led to a three-week 2015 criminal trial, she left an answerphone message with John: "I will put in writing, prick my finger and sign with blood — whatever makes you reassured that this is for real,’’ she said. "I will leave my husband, and I will make a permanent life and home with Derrick."

Anna also doubled down in her academic work. Writing in a pre-trial 2014 collection of essays, titled Disability and the Good Human Life, she said: "In the spring of 2011, [D.J.]'s access to his means of communication was taken from him, and he is once again treated as severely intellectually impaired by those who have control over his life. This chapter is dedicated to him, in hope that he will one day regain his voice and his freedom."

The case, predictably, drew backlash from every quarter. Some condemned Anna, as did the criminal justice system, as a rapist preying on the vulnerable, while others saw her as being unfairly accused, supporting her efforts to try and help Derrick, seeing her as an open-minded champion of disability rights.

Academics came out to argue both sides. Notably, two distinguished professors, Oxford's Professor Jeff McMahan and Princeton's Peter Singer, wrote a 2017 article titled Who Is the Victim in the Anna Stubblefield Case? in the New York Times. They wrote: "No one would or could ever have known that Stubblefield and D.J. had had sexual relations if she had not conveyed to his mother and brother what she believed to be his message to them, via facilitated communication that she conducted in their presence, that he and she were in love and had consummated their relationship. This is the action not of a sexual predator but of an honest and honorable woman in love."

Daisy, Derrick and John Johnson (Sky)
Daisy, Derrick and John Johnson (Sky)

They continued: "The severity of the judge’s sentence might be justifiable if Stubblefield’s having sex with D.J. not only was culpable but also both wronged him and harmed him. Yet both of the latter assumptions are questionable." They too were met with backlash.

The case stirred up dozens of further issues. Derrick's family brought up race: John spoke about black identity, while Derrick's mother, Daisy, said to a newspaper, "a white woman did this to my son."

Anna was accused to 12 years in prison in 2015. The conviction was overturned in 2017 due to the way the trial had been conducted, and she was let out of prison after 22 months. Anna entered a plea deal the following year, admitting she had touched Derrick's penis with the intention of sexual gratification for both parties, and she was not required to return to prison.

Tell Them You Love Me will premiere on Sky Documentaries and NOW on February 3