“You’ve got me fucking all the women in the office.”
Those are close to the first words out of Seth Williams’s mouth when I meet him in June, after paying my 50 bucks—the lowest amount that would get me in the door—to wander around incognito at his “Seth and the City” fund-raiser, in a conference room atop Two Liberty Place.
For a little while I stayed lost among the D.A.’s political friends, the swank hors d’oeuvres, a deejay’s dance offerings, beautiful women. But I knew it wouldn’t take long for someone to tell Williams there was a reporter in his midst, and sure enough, I soon saw Philly’s bow-tied, slightly rotund district attorney staring at me and the political adviser I’d just been chatting with. So I went up to Williams and introduced myself. That’s when he lets loose: “You’ve got me fucking all the women … ”
The D.A. is apparently referring to a blog post that a staffer at this magazine wrote about a party planner Williams hired to the tune of $76,000 a year, and how paying that amount for something so frivolous when first-year assistant D.A.’s make all of 48-something had the office in an uproar. In fact, the blog said nothing about Seth Williams’s sexual activities on the 18th floor of the district attorney’s office, a stone’s throw from City Hall.
So I’m silent as Billy Miller, Williams’s political adviser, stares openmouthed at the D.A., as mesmerized as I am by what he’s just proclaimed. Williams, 45 years old, is much better-looking than he appears on TV or in photos, and he doesn’t really seem all that worked up: His skin, which he calls “butterscotch” (his biological mother was white, his biological father black), fairly glows in public, as if spotlighted; his eyebrows arc in near half circles around his large brown eyes. The careful mustache that looks pasted-on from a distance is real enough. And now the D.A., nursing a Jack Daniel’s, quickly recovers. It’s natural “that some people are angry,” since he had to make changes when he came on as D.A. in January 2010 and clean out the deadwood. It gets people—there are some 300 assistant district attorneys in the office—saying things. Then Seth Williams segues:
“Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “It’s like with Abraham Lincoln.” At the end of the Civil War, Williams explains, when it was time for Robert E. Lee to surrender at Appomattox, Union general Ulysses S. Grant saluted Lee and his defeated troops. This is a somewhat grandiose way for Williams to make another point—which is that he has, in some fashion, honored his predecessor, Lynne Abraham. Although he then goes on to tell me how much he has accomplished in two and a half years fixing what was wrong under “the death-penalty D.A.,” as he calls Abraham, with her terribly low conviction rate.
Finally, after all this flows vigorously from Seth Williams, he stops, considers me for a moment, and wonders what I am doing there, what I am after.
I’m here because Williams, as district attorney and an oft-mentioned mayoral contender, is a very powerful guy. I’m also here because of the rumblings of current and former prosecutors about the way he’s running the D.A.’s office.
And when I reach out to them, over the next few weeks, they give me an earful, telling me that Williams’s leadership is so loose—or nonexistent—that the feel and function of the D.A.’s office is at risk.
“I’ve been waiting for this call,” one says. “I’m heartbroken about what has happened.”
This prosecutor—who works for Williams in a senior position—says Williams is a terrible boss: “His Achilles heel is that he needs to be liked. He’s very juvenile. He’s like a wayward two-year-old, with no thought of appearances.” The prosecutor alludes to whispers of inappropriate relationships between Williams and women who work in the office—although the D.A. has been separated from his wife for a couple of years. He claims that Williams allows friendships to affect his decisions as D.A.; that he’s hired political pals for dubious community outreach positions; that he’s so focused on his political future, he doesn’t really know what’s going on in the office. “The joke in the office is that Seth will either leave us in handcuffs or run for mayor,” says this prosecutor.
A former high-ranking assistant district attorney who retired on the heels of Williams coming in agrees to meet me in an out-of-the-way West Philly bar. “He’s an articulate black man. That’s what the machine wanted and what it got,” she says, sizing up the political atmosphere. “But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Other current and former prosecutors say similar things, offering a harsh indictment: that Seth Williams has upset pretty much everything Lynne Abraham built over two decades, damaging a place they grew to love. Which certainly does not bode well, they say, for the future of criminal prosecution in this city.
Yet as I probe deeper, something else becomes apparent. That maybe making big changes is not such a bad thing. That the way Lynne Abraham’s office went about prosecuting criminals in Philadelphia—one of the most violent big cities in America—wasn’t working. Not when defendants escape conviction on all charges in almost two-thirds of violent-crime cases. Or when just one in 10 charged in gun assaults is convicted of that charge. Or when two in 10 accused of armed robbery get convicted of armed robbery.
That’s what the Inquirer found, in a four-part series on the city’s judicial system published on the eve of Seth Williams taking over as D.A.
There’s a lot to be said for Abraham’s legendary toughness: Indeed, during her tenure, the rate of murder convictions in Philadelphia surpassed the national average. But even Abraham’s acolytes admit that by her last term, she was stuck in her ways, mailing it in. Change was long overdue.
Williams has come in with big ideas and a big presence, and both are a threat to the status quo. He has reorganized prosecution across the city from horizontal to vertical, which means his ADAs are assigned to one area of town instead of bouncing around all over. He has upgraded his charging unit with more-experienced prosecutors, so that lesser crimes are dealt with faster and charges are often negotiated downward, which is designed to decrease the backlog of cases—long a huge problem—and to focus prosecution on serious violent crime. He has created diversionary programs to get nonviolent offenders—especially drug abusers—help instead of punishing them.
Are these changes working? We don’t yet know, in large part because the criminal justice system has been such a mess for so long that change happens slowly.
But one thing is certain: The district attorney in any big city—especially one as besieged by violent crime and as beleaguered by problems of race and poverty as
Philadelphia—sets a standard. His tone and stance and personality send an important message. Not just on who he is, but on how criminal justice will be served.
And this is the point many prosecutors make: that the district attorney’s office should be different from other city government entities. That its standards of conduct should be “untouchable,” says the senior prosecutor who is heartbroken over the current regime. “We don’t want to fall like PHA or the school district, but if our house is not in order … Good ADAs are leaving because of money, but also in disgust.”
When Lynne Abraham was district attorney of Philadelphia, there was a sign on the wall on the way to the elevators of the old office on Arch Street. Under the district attorney’s seal, it read:
AIN’T NO JUSTICE
This captured two things: that the system—judges, perps, endless cases—was aligned against the D.A.’s. And that it was up to them to fight the good fight. Them alone.
Abraham believed in a certain by-the-book way of going after justice. There is a story about her hiring Arnie Gordon as her initial first assistant in 1991. First assistants are important: The district attorney sets the office ethos, and the first assistant implements it. They went out for coffee, Lynne and Arnie, a longtime prosecutor. What sealed the deal for her was a small moment, when it was time to pay:
“We’ll each pay for our own coffee,” Arnie told her.
That said it—how they’d run the office. Tightly. With an old-school esprit. Until recently, female ADAs had to wear skirts to court. And stockings. By the book.
In contrast, a former ADA who worked under both Abraham and Williams cites a recent example in lost control and command: A high-ranking prosecutor, the ADA heard, got hit with a DUI while driving a city car; the decision came down from Williams to take city cars from all unit chiefs.
A hubbub ensued in the office. As the former prosecutor puts it, “The unit chiefs are out of their minds over this.” If Lynne and Arnie had done something similar, the chiefs wouldn’t have liked it, but there would never have been grumbling of any sort. Arnie would have summoned them to his office. Where he would have said:
“I’m taking your unit car.” Pause. “And I like your fucking shoes.”
Meaning: Now get out of my office.
The difference under Seth Williams, says the former ADA, “is the absence of adults.” There is a lot of time and energy wasted grumbling.
One adult who left in June of last year was Joe McGettigan, Williams’s initial hire as his first assistant. A smart hire, everyone said. McGettigan would be Arnie Redux. But Seth and Joe fought, especially over Williams’s hiring of political pals to do outreach work. Most prominent among them was a woman named Theresa Marley, who was given an office on the 18th floor with the other heavyweights and who tended to wander around barking orders—though she had no law degree and staffers were unclear what her job was. Co-workers say she was so disruptive and annoying that she was eventually moved out of the central office.
And then McGettigan himself was gone, ostensibly for health reasons. But he soon popped up in the state attorney general’s office, prosecuting Jerry Sandusky.
Theresa Marley still works for the D.A., doing community outreach. The rumors persist that there was only one reason Williams hired her—she was his girlfriend. Rumors that both Williams and Marley deny.
In the context of the demands on prosecutors, this sort of messiness is debilitating. First-year ADAs go to court every day having to wade through some 15 or 20 cases. On any Saturday, maybe three-quarters of these young lawyers are in the office, trying to catch up on work. They have to believe, fervently, in the job they’re doing, given that they start at less than 50 grand a year.
Of course, that belief must go all the way up the line. Lynne Abraham would go out 300 nights a year—giving speeches, preaching the gospel of balls-to-the-wall prosecution (though she always kept a firm hand on the office). If anything, Williams is more out and about, railing about the need to attack crime before it happens instead of throwing bad guys in jail and tossing the key away. But the question former and current prosecutors raise is exactly whom his energy is serving—the D.A.’s office, or Williams himself? Or maybe the question is a little simpler: How much does Seth Williams really care?
Williams is talking to eight-year-olds, early one hot summer morning at Mother Bethel AME Church, on South 6th Street. He’s brought his youngest daughter of three, Hope Olivia, who’s also eight, along for his talk to 15 African-American kids struggling in school.
He asks them, one by one, for their names, and what they want to be when they grow up.
There’s a budding FBI agent. And a basketball player.
“After your career in the NBA is over, what do you want to do?” Seth Williams asks.
“After your career in the NFL is over, what do you want to do?” Williams presses gently. No answer.
Williams launches into his message: Stay in school. There is one thing people who get arrested in Philadelphia share above all other things, he tells them: They didn’t finish high school. And then Seth Williams begins to tell them some of his own story:
“I went to Central High School, where I played football, ran track, was on the baseball team. I was on the bowling team—I had all these letters. After I graduated Central, I went to West Point. It was free! I went there, and I failed math, and failed chemistry.
“They told me, can’t stay here. It was embarrassing. I left, and went to another school, called Penn State. I graduated. My daughters are going to go to Penn State. In the car, when I say, We are! … they say Penn State!”
The district attorney is clearly enjoying himself. His goal, of course, is to help the kids understand overcoming failure by sharing his. And then he gives them something even more intimate:
“People think I’m up here wearing a suit, I have to be some rich guy. Not true—when I was born, my mother gave me up for adoption. I never met my mother or my father! I lived in an orphanage, where they have some nuns walking around changing diapers. And then two different foster homes. Then I was adopted by a nice family. My first name, people call me Seth, but my first name is really Rufus.”
The children laugh. Rufus the Doofus, he was called.
“See, you laugh, but I always liked my name because it was my father’s name. My father was named for an uncle of his who was a runaway slave. Rufus.”
Someone has a question. Her name is Carmen, and she asks quietly if he knew his real parents.
“My father was my best friend,” the D.A. tells her, meaning his adoptive dad. “He died in 2001. The other people”—his biological parents—“I don’t know anything about them.” Williams dismisses them with a sweep of his arm.
He grew up in West Philly’s Cobbs Creek, the only child in his middle-class adoptive family; his father was a teacher and his mother a secretary, Williams elaborates later that day. He was a skinny boy in a Phillies baseball cap, spending Saturdays doing errands with Rufus in his Volkswagen. Education was important, and in grade school at Friends Central he was a hands-on learner. Give him a magnifying glass, send him out onto the lawn, among the trees. He thrived there among mostly Jewish kids, though he still played basketball in Cobbs Creek—where he was good enough to fit in. Then on to Central. He could make it in either camp, white or black. Though he wasn’t quite either. So he worked hard in both worlds. A joiner, a schmoozer. A natural politician.
West Point was another story. What he told the children at Mother Bethel was true—chemistry and math got him—but there was a second problem.
Seth had a white girlfriend, back in Philly; other cadets had seen her picture—a very pretty white girl. One day a higher-ranking cadet demanded that Williams come to his dorm room.
“Williams,” the cadet intoned in private, “what would your father say if he could see you now?”
“Sir. He’d be proud.”
The cadet yanked a button off Seth’s shirt and threw it in his face. “Look at your uniform,” the cadet said. “You’re a disgrace.”
Another cadet joined in: “Williams, there is no place at West Point for niggers. Go back to Philly and bebop and break-dance and do whatever jigaboos do in Philly now.”
Seth was soon on a pay phone, calling his girlfriend and mother and father and telling them about the awful thing that had happened to him. Not long after, the commanding officer of his company wanted to see him: Was he the victim of a hazing incident? Were racial epithets used? It turned out Seth’s mother had immediately called West Point and demanded to speak to “the boss”—that would be the three-star general in charge. An investigation ensued. The name-calling cadets denied saying anything, but now Seth was tormented for getting them in trouble. And so he was not only failing subjects but failing the culture. Seth was a marked man.
From West Point on a Friday to Penn State Abington the following Monday, where Williams quickly joined the Black Caucus and became head of the political action committee. A year later, in 1987—now president of the Black Caucus—Seth would lead a march from State College to Harrisburg against Penn State investment in apartheid South Africa. He spoke on the steps of the Capitol.
But another Penn State incident was just as telling: The spring of that march to Harrisburg, Seth visited his parents with his PSU girlfriend. She told them about bruises on his arms and butt from a paddling he’d gotten at Alpha Phi Alpha, the fraternity he was pledging, the same chapter Seth’s father had started there just after coming home from World War II. His mother, coming to Seth’s rescue once again, made phone calls, and once again there was an investigation.
“I wish I had gotten the courage to stand up and say whatever,” he says now of the hazing, “but that’s not what happened.”
Williams moved on in another direction: He became president of Penn State’s student body. Next stop: Georgetown Law, and then the D.A.’s office in Philadelphia, under Lynne Abraham.
His story. He tells it one way to the 15 children at Bethel, and then in an entirely different way to nine young men in a small conference room on North Broad Street a little while later.
“You might be thinking, who is this guy, a bald, fat dude, what the hell does he know? I got it.” His audience laughs, and now Williams is talking fast and sounds a tad Southern: “I grew up in West Philly, and played basketball for the Cobb Street Comets, we were city champs. … ”
He’s got their attention. This group has entered Back on Track, a program Williams started for low-level drug offenders after learning about a similar one in San Francisco. It helps them get their GEDs, some job-skills training and so forth. He told the eight-year-olds that he wants to stop crime before it happens. With these guys, he’s trying to stop the bleeding.
All of them stare at Seth.
“Kids that played basketball with me called me a punk,” he tells them. ”Called me a pussy—I was going to school. They out there slinging the rock. They had girlfriends gettin’ nails done, buyin’ them stuff. I worked Sunday morning cutting grass. They thought that was corny.”
It’s impressive, Seth Williams’s charm and openness, his ability to relate. But spending his days like this has also generated a ubiquitous complaint: that Williams is so busy bouncing around the city, he is unengaged with his day job, that of actually running the district attorney’s office.
Seth Williams started working the angles from day one, back in 1992. He had been hired by the district attorney’s office in Philadelphia and—having just passed the bar—was celebrating with friends with a Jack Daniel’s and cigar at a tavern near the old office at 1421 Arch. Lynne Abraham happened to walk in, and Seth went up to her: “Judge”—she was a former Common Pleas judge, and that’s what everyone called her then—“I don’t have anybody in my family who is a lawyer. I don’t know anybody who is a lawyer. Will you be my sponsor?” A new lawyer’s sponsor vouches for his moral rectitude, one attorney for another.
Lynne said yes.
Early on, as a young assistant D.A., Seth wrote letters up the chain of command. On things that could be done for morale, on better office procedure. He coached Lynne’s bodyguard’s son’s basketball team in Overbrook. He got Lynne to sponsor his daughter’s softball team. Seth was an out-and-about guy; he began to rep the D.A.’s office at community meetings.
In ’98, Abraham made him assistant chief of Municipal Court, where Williams would help oversee how perpetrators are charged; in 2000, she gave him a unit of his own, Repeat Offenders, to create.
But Williams made it clear to Abraham—and to the D.A.’s office—what was coming when he left in 2002 to work for the Zarwin Baum law firm. At that point, he was married, with one daughter; Williams had met his wife, Sonita, in 1995, when she was a social worker for DHS, and now he needed to make more money. (Over the years, sloppy personal finances have dogged Williams. Sonita would declare bankruptcy in ’05 over some $70,000 in credit-card debt—basically built up over “Coach bags and shoes,” the D.A. says. Williams admits he used to have a lot of credit cards himself, but says he’s learned his lesson and narrowed his reach: “I only have a debit card now,” he says.)
At his D.A. going-away party in ’02, Williams announced, “I’ll be coming back to the D.A.’s office. But not as an assistant.” It was the first public shot across Lynne Abraham’s bow, delivered just after he had called her “Momma Lynne” in his resignation letter: He had designs on the job she seemed to want forever. They had come full circle; his mentor was now an enemy.
Williams ran in ’05 and lost narrowly to Abraham in the primary; by ’09, she saw the writing on the wall and bowed out. But a curious TV ad would run during that ’09 race. It accused Seth Williams, when he was head of Repeat Offenders in 2002, of grossly mishandling a case in which a 19-year-old young man, Aaron Kelly, had stolen a car and was caught with a gun. Kelly spent a few months in jail and was soon out on probation, but in late ’03, he shot a 43-year-old man several times at 16th and Dauphin streets and would eventually be convicted of that murder. The message of the ad, paid for by opponent Dan McCaffery, was obvious: There was blood on Seth Williams’s hands.
The Daily News looked into the case, and found that it wasn’t necessarily unusual for a defendant like Kelly to get a slap on the wrist for swiping a car and possessing a gun. Yet the case still raises an important question: Why was such a relatively low-level crime prosecuted personally by Williams, then head of Repeat Offenders, who should have had bigger problems on his plate?
The answer—or at least the heart of the question—lies in Williams’s relationship with Scott DiClaudio, who was Aaron Kelly’s defense attorney. Seth and Scott have been buddies since high school at Central, going back more than 25 years. They still have dinner regularly. They’ve gone to Phillies games and Atlantic City together. DiClaudio, with a personality as large as Williams’s, was fond of breezing through the Criminal Justice Center trying to torment ADAs, after Seth won the primary in ’09: “Hey, watch your back,” he’d say. He had more access to their boy than they did, he seemed to be bragging.
So why had Seth Williams taken the Aaron Kelly case?
Both Williams and DiClaudio say they don’t remember—Williams claims he could have signed off on the case in passing, that it was one of thousands. Both Williams and DiClaudio also claim they wouldn’t know Aaron Kelly from Adam, even though he went on to commit murder. They say suggestions that Williams took the case to cut his friend some slack are trumped-up political hooey.
Maybe. The point, and risk for Seth Williams, is that he doesn’t seem to understand line-crossing. He doesn’t seem to realize that he should have simply stayed away from a case like that, no matter how boilerplate it may have seemed at the time.
Consider another example, one that involves another close friend of Williams, a former assistant D.A. named Jerry Teresinski, who now works for the Department of Justice.
This story begins with a convicted murderer, Marcus Perez, who started writing Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky in early 2011. Back in 1989, when he was 18, Perez killed a man he and a buddy were trying to collect a $150 debt from. Nobody, including Perez, disputes that. But he says he was misled by the judge regarding his sentence—that the judge, in accepting Perez’s guilty plea, promised him the possibility of getting out of prison one day. But Perez was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole—he’ll never leave prison.
The judge, Theodore McKee—now on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals bench—corroborates Perez; he has written to Perez’s defense attorney confirming his mistake in telling Perez he might leave prison one day. Perez has been trying for years to get hearings to address it—but the D.A.’s office has consistently opposed his attempts.
Indeed, in 1994, four years after Marcus Perez was sentenced, assistant district attorney Teresinski had the court stenographer in the case review the wording in the sentencing-hearing court transcript. The stenographer claims he found an error, and the record was changed. It’s just one word. The entry originally had Judge McKee telling Perez, “Life implies 17 ½ to 35 years. … That is the most you could receive if you go to trial” for murder. It now reads, “Life plus 17 ½ to 35 years.”
That “plus” makes it much harder for Marcus Perez to get his day in court, a hearing to decide whether he should be resentenced.
Bykofsky wrote several columns about this. Williams says now that he’s confident his office properly denied Perez’s appeal attempts, yet he felt moved to write an aggressive letter to the Daily News claiming that the court stenographer, in checking the original steno tape of the sentencing hearing, “discovered” the error in the record. Really? Williams makes it sound as if the stenographer simply woke up in the middle of the night four years after the hearing wondering if he got a judge’s wording wrong. The D.A. doesn’t bother including the fact that his office, represented by Jerry Teresinski, flagged the “typo.”
What’s more, in the letter Williams failed to reveal, naturally, his relationship with Jerry Teresinski (who through his lawyer says that he “did nothing improper”). Old buddies indeed: Teresinski is the godfather of Williams’s daughter Hope Olivia.
It’s the sort of entanglement Williams gets into but doesn’t even see as an entanglement, another case he should have simply stayed away from. “Just because Jerry is my friend,” Seth Williams says, his voice rising, “and the godfather of my youngest daughter, somehow something happened before I was even D.A.—it’s ludicrous. Some people have conspiracy theories—it bends all rational thought and logic.”
Theresa Marley is another case in point. A nurse by training, she volunteered to help on Williams’s ’09 campaign, and one high-level political adviser to Williams says he’s never seen a minion chase after a candidate with such gusto; again, both Marley and Williams fervently deny the rumors of a relationship. Yet no one can figure out why Williams lavished her with a $71,000 salary with no clear-cut role and let her seem to poke into everyone else’s business in the office.
There have been half a dozen other hires as well—most of them political associates of Williams’s—that have enraged veteran prosecutors. Retired judge Anthony DeFino, a longtime financial and political backer of Williams, is supposed to improve relations between the D.A.’s office and the bench. (“Is he the official greeter?” asks Common Pleas judge Ben Lerner, wondering why his former colleague comes by to say hello. “I have no idea.”) DeFino gets paid $55 an hour as a contract employee. Thomas Carter ($92,500 annually), an old Rendell crony, is Williams’s liaison to the black clergy. Monique Wescott ($75,900) came on as a party planner. Others who worked on Williams’s campaign were tapped to run tiny new D.A. outposts on Ogontz Avenue and in Northern Liberties, places to which Theresa Marley now reports for work.
The spending of almost half a million dollars a year on what has every appearance of feeding Williams’s political machine—that, more than anything else, has ruined D.A. office culture.
Williams disputes that the office is bitterly aligned against him—but that’s part of the problem. Even prosecutors who have his ear can’t get through to him on how he’s perceived among his staff and whom he should avoid having around him.
“Something prevented him from acting when he should have, back in 2010,” a high-ranking prosecutor says about Theresa
Marley. In other words, she should have been gone long ago. But Seth Williams doesn’t listen, not on that front. He does what he wants. At this point, the prosecutor—still loyal to his boss—thinks a public scolding might do Williams some good.
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.”
On a Monday afternoon in late July, I pay a visit to the D.A. community office on Ogontz Avenue and chat with Vernon Price, a former ward leader Williams hired, about engaging the community. It feels like a good idea—a D.A.’s office in the neighborhood, where ordinary citizens can come in and air grievances. But Price, who is making $76,500 a year, shows me the sign-in log: 100 signatures over three months. That’s one person a day.
Such a trickle of visitors hardly portends newfound belief in the D.A.’s office, or relief from the powerful fear of speaking out about violent crime. Many Williams critics believe the community offices are simply there to help him politically, and that D.A. is a stepping stone to mayor.
“I love being D.A.,” Williams says. He says it so often, he might have convinced himself that this is the job where he wants to make his mark.
And what a job it is! On the day I spent with Seth Williams in early August, after chatting up troubled kids at a church, after urging young drug offenders to get their lives together, he had lunch at the Union League. (Williams’s memberships there and at the Sporting Club are paid for by his political fund-raising.) Over crabcakes, Williams gets William Hite, the city’s new schools head, on board with his bold plan to threaten to charge parents of truant students with endangering the welfare of a child. Then he gives Dr. Hite a tour of the venerable club, flinging open doors of vast rooms like Jay Gatsby wooing Daisy as he promises to bring Hite and his wife back for an eight-course meal. He stops to admire the portraits of League presidents in Lincoln Hall, bursts in on Jim Kenney—“Hello, Councilman,” Seth purrs—and other power players enjoying a midday beer and cigar.
So there he is, both sides at once: the man of ideas who wants to put a dent in crime before it happens, and the charmer. Maybe he can make it work. Maybe he will become a shining example of that intersection of political skill and a desire to change the world. If he doesn’t get tripped up on his own hubris, and on his own excesses. In the end, that may turn out to be the only meaningful question about Seth Williams: Which side of him wins?
Additional reporting by Victor Fiorillo