The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams
Perhaps Williams’s handling of personal relationships and dubious hires seems like small potatoes, in the face of what his office is charged with: prosecuting crime in Philadelphia. In fact, that’s exactly the point. Lynne Abraham’s success was predicated on staying well above any ethical fault line, and imbuing the office with her personal decorum and toughness.
Yet a much more serious lapse in Williams’s work under Lynne Abraham came to light, raising questions about his willingness to let cases he should have been pursuing languish to the point that serious criminals went free. It was alluded to by several Abraham acolytes, and then laid out in detail by an insider who claims direct knowledge of Williams’s lapse.
When he was assistant head of Municipal Court in the late ’90s, Williams directed 30 young prosecutors on presenting cases at preliminary hearings. It’s an important first step, guiding the decision on whether an arrest will continue through the system so that a crime will be properly adjudicated.
But many cases get thrown out in preliminary hearings. Often, witnesses don’t show up; or maybe a cop’s testimony is needed, but he’s tied up in another courtroom. After two or three delays, the judge will typically dismiss a case. But the district attorney’s office can then submit the case before a Common Pleas judge; it’s called a re-arrest.
Moving quickly on re-arrests is imperative; alleged perpetrators are due speedy trials by law, and if a case sits for six months, it will in all likelihood become dead, impossible to prosecute.
The insider says that when Seth Williams moved on from assistant chief of Municipal Court in 2000 to create the Repeat Offenders Unit, he left behind at least two filing cabinets of cases that were deemed suitable for pursuing but that hadn’t been acted upon. It was clear Williams had personally designated many of them as re-arrests, because he had marked them with a Batman sticker—a goofy Seth calling card everybody in the D.A.’s office rolled eyes over.
The filing cabinets, the insider with knowledge of that unit says, constituted hundreds of cases, built up under Williams’s watch. Which was, the insider says, “an incredible injustice to victims, for serious crimes.”
Some cases sat far too long and couldn’t be pursued again. Perpetrators of serious crimes went free.
“I think he was overwhelmed,” the insider says of Williams. “He didn’t have good management expertise or training. Instead he wanted to be everyone’s friend and boost morale—have beer parties, make other ADAs feel better.”
“That is just incorrect,” Williams says when confronted with the accusation that he ignored the re-arrests. Then, exasperated, he offers no further details, but instead launches into a rambling monologue: “People always try to find something. The more success I have, the more people who want to attack me, the whole question about being mayor, I don’t want to be mayor. I want to be D.A. But people who want to be mayor, because of my notoriety, because of my executive experience, because I’m on TV 20 times more than they are—it’s going to take a lot of money to get the same name recognition, they think that they have to tear me down, or make up stuff. … It’s bullshit.”
Yet ignoring the potential re-arrests seems of a piece. Williams was never going to be a great prosecutor—“He’d be fine if your house was robbed, but if your wife was murdered, you wouldn’t want him to prosecute,” says a former ADA—and he tended to leave the grunt work to others. Seth Williams keeps moving forward. In the decade he spent in the D.A.’s office, he had his eyes on a certain end game, something he confided to fellow prosecutors: He would become top dog.
We’ve been down this road before, of course, when the personal conduct of an officeholder threatens to become the definitive word on his effectiveness. But Ben Lerner, the longtime Common Pleas judge who presides over non-jury murder cases and is respected in all corners of the city’s judicial system, views the changes Seth Williams has made through his own intimate acquaintance with the city’s most notorious felons. Lerner’s take on Williams is systemic, in other words, and he likes what he sees.
“He promised to revamp charging of crimes, and he did that, getting more senior people in the process earlier, making more reasonable plea offers earlier. And he’s taken a hard look at capital punishment, which is supposed to be reserved for the worst defendants.”
I reach out to Lerner after meeting covertly in Reading Terminal with a high-level prosecutor in the D.A.’s office who thinks his unit is woefully understaffed and who worries that lessening charges against some criminals to reduce the horrendous backlog in the city courts is allowing perps back out on the street too quickly. Violent crime, after all, is rising, and this prosecutor started emailing me news of career criminals committing new crimes. Now, if somebody on the inside is saying—
“I definitely don’t agree with that,” Lerner interrupts. “That’s a school of thought that made this, for a long time, one of the most inefficient and ineffective criminal justice systems in the country. I know this firsthand.” Indeed, Lerner tried to get Lynne Abraham to see the wisdom of sizing up criminals early on, to separate the dangerous from those who weren’t so risky. He got nowhere. “Williams has made changes that were 20 years overdue,” Lerner says.
The other big change that Williams instituted, along with state Supreme Court justices Ron Castille and Seamus McCaffery, is vertical prosecution. A prosecutor is now assigned to one courtroom and deals with one district in the city that he gets to know well—its cops, its habitual criminals, its hot spots of crime—instead of scrambling all over trying to prosecute citywide. This makes obvious sense.
At this point, however, real data on whether Williams’s office is more effective in combating crime is hard to come by. Far fewer cases are being filed, certainly: In 2011, the D.A.’s office brought 8,734 murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault cases, almost 1,800 fewer than in 2009, Abraham’s last year. That’s part of Williams’s pledge to be smarter about bringing charges, to move on from the throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks mentality. The percentage of cases brought to trial has crept up, but we still don’t know whether Williams’s methods are improving on Abraham’s abysmal conviction rate; that’s because his office, almost three years into his tenure, hasn’t compiled those numbers.
At any rate, it’s certainly clear that Seth Williams’s ideas for taking the D.A.’s office forward, as good as they might be, are at risk if he can’t rein himself in to see them through, and if he doesn’t maintain the backing of his prosecutors.
Even Ben Lerner has noticed the dark mood of the D.A.’s office, which he says is driving out good lawyers even before they would ordinarily leave to pursue more lucrative careers in private practice. “I’ve certainly seen that in homicide,” he says. “They may have turned over 75 to 80 percent of prosecutors the last three years.”
Lerner and others worry that there simply aren’t enough D.A.’s, which puts further heat on the two outreach D.A. offices Williams has opened, with more to come: We need lawyers, not community organizers!, critics say. But Williams talks boldly about changing the perception of the law in the neighborhoods:
“I think that for years, in many neighborhoods, the neighborhood that I grew up in”—Cobbs Creek in West Philly—“law enforcement weren’t seen as heroes. We’re not going to change that overnight. But we’re going to do all that we can, because the very foundation of criminal justice hinges on people thinking that we’re legitimate.”