A few weeks back, District Attorney Seth Williams did something amazing: He said he was going to start looking for innocent people and free them from prison.
More precisely, he appointed homicide prosecutor Mark Gilson to lead a “conviction integrity unit” to comb through old cases, look for possible wrongful convictions, and get those convictions overturned. Overturning convictions, of course, is not something that prosecutors like to see happen.
But Williams made the move with the support of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a non-profit office staffed with interns from law schools around the city, which has a mission of undoing wrongful convictions. Marissa Boyers Bluestine is the project’s legal director. She spoke to Philly Mag recently about the new position, and why it’s worth it to Philly to try and help the wrongfully convicted.
“We’re not saying that we can tell you who’s innocent and who’s not, but we need the partnership to be able to make that determination,” she said, “and we’re very proud to be doing it with the district attorney.” Read more »
After double-dog daring Seth Williams to prosecute the now-legendarily abandoned sting case involving Philly Democrats — and then appearing to take back the offer over the weekend — Pennsyvlania Attorney General Kathleen Kane said late Tuesday she’ll turn the case to Williams after all.
Really. She means it this time.
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AP Photo | Bradley C. Bower
Things have gone from bad to ugly in the bizarre microcosm that is the abandoned sting. Kathleen Kane’s epic “double-dog-dare” to Seth Williams (in which she challenged the Philly D.A. to prosecute the case himself) has fizzled after reports late last week that Kane had yet to turn over the case files — and is apparently asking for guarantees that her handling of case not be subject to scrutiny. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Williams isn’t having it:
“You state you will grant me access only if I am able to satisfy you that I will not engage in any evaluation of your actions in reviewing this investigation. You have no authority under the law to establish any such pre-condition,” Williams wrote in a letter to Kane, a copy of which the Tribune-Review obtained.
It’s an exchange that prompted this unflattering-for-Kane political cartoon from the Patriot News.
And this Sunday, the Inquirer painted a portrait of the whole sting affair as a pissing match between Kane and Frank Fina, the lead prosecutor for the sting and for the high-profile Jerry Sandusky case; Fina was on his way out the door as Kane was walking through it in January 2013. Kane — who’d specialized in child abuse cases as a Lackawanna County ADA — had made Fina’s handling of the Sandusky case a campaign issue, and has been in the process of reinvestigating it:
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CBS Philly says D.A. Seth Williams wants to contact the parents of chronically truant students in order to end their chronic truancy, natch, but is stymied by a problem: The district won’t hand over the names of those students and their parents, citing federal privacy concerns.
“The letter writing, Williams said, would be the start of his office’s effort, and he said the pressure on parents who willfully ignore warnings of truancy would ramp up, escalating in a worst case to felony charges against the parent,” CBS Philly reports. But a district spokesman told the station that the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act is an obstacle to such cooperation.
The abandoned sting case — and it’s going to be with us awhile, now, clearly, so let’s come up with a clever name for it — just took a delightful turn: Attorney General Kathleen Kane basically just dared District Attorney Seth Williams, one of her loudest critics in the matter, to prosecute the case if he thinks it’s so great.
We have video:
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We’re not sure we’ve often seen a story reported in such close detail as the Inquirer’s series of stories about the sting operation that targeted Philly Democrats with under-the-table cash payments, along with Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s decision not to prosecute any cases resulting from that operation. While the framework has stayed the same, each story — drawn from case summaries and interviews — has added a new layer of detail.
Still, we have questions, some of them prompted by the political aftermath, some by the reporting itself.
• Why bring the probe in the first place? If Pennsylvania lawmakers are essentially free to accept money gifts — as they are — as long as there’s no quid pro quo and as long as they disclose the gifts, why bother?
• If prosecutors were seeking evidence of quid pro quo, why did they offer lawmakers money to cast votes they almost certainly would’ve made anyway? State Rep. Vanessa Brown was given money, for example, then urged to vote against a Voter ID bill that every Democrat voted against. Is there any evidence that any votes or business arrangements were affected by the confidential informant’s cash payments?
AP Photo | Matt Rourke
• Why were certain lawmakers targeted by the probe? Was it based on some criteria or evidence, or was it based on who could be approached by the confidential informant, Tyron Ali? Kane, in her Sunday op-ed defending her decision, says there was “no evidence of predication” so that lawmakers weren’t unfairly entrapped — were they chosen willy nilly? Or by race, as Kane has suggested?
Why is Seth Williams charging into this? He’s gone beyond affirming the integrity of members of his office — people who worked on the sting operation in the AG’s office before going to work for the district attorney — to challenging the top law enforcement officer in the state, who is also a member of his party.
AP Photo | Matt Burke
• Frank Fina, (pictured right, behind Seth Williams) finds himself in another dispute with Attorney G
AP Photo | Matt Rourke
• Richard Sprague's firm represents Intertrust GCN, the company through which Lewis Katz (pictured) exercises his part-ownership of the Inquirer. Sprague's firm represented Intertrust GCN in suing to return Inquirer editor Bill Marimow to his job after Marimow's firing by publisher Bob Hall. Sprague is defending Intertrust GCN, which as part-owner is named as a defendant in Seamus McCaffery's defamation suit against the paper. (Indeed, it was Sprague's firm that asked for the recusal of every Philadelphia judge from the case.) Now he has been retained by Kane to pursue possible defamation claims involving the Inquirer. Given its representation of Intertrust in matters involving the paper's administration and its content, wouldn't Sprague's firm have a conflict of interest in the matter?
• Kane has written that the case was dropped, in part, because prosecutors gave confidential informant Tyron Ali a deal that dropped a number of criminal charges against him just days before she received the case. Why was Tyron Ali’s settlement with prosecutors particularly egregious? Prosecutors used compromised confidential informants all the time; criminals turn snitch in order to mitigate their punishments. How did Ali’s settlement push out of bounds?
• On the other hand: Such informants do often wait until convictions have been served up in other cases before their deal is finalized. Why didn’t that happen in this case?
• What happened during the 18 months the case was apparently largely dormant under Kane's predecessor, Linda Kelly? Was that dormancy a deliberate decision by prosecutors? Why wait until Kane took office to renew interest in it?
• We have several examples of Kathleen Kane refusing to try cases she didn’t believe in. (There was also her controversial decision not to rep the state in its defense of the gay marriage ban.) Do we have examples of her deciding to engage a case that is a close call, in her mind, or does she exercise her discretion in favor of home run calls only?
Lots of developments over the weekend in the political fallout from revelations that Attorney General Kathleen Kane abandoned a sting operation that caught Philly Democrats taking undisclosed cash. The Inquirer printed two new stories expanding our knowledge of the details of the operation without offering much in the way of additional news — the same Democrats still caught on tape taking the same money, only at a granular level. Frank Fina, a Philadelphia prosecutor who started the sting operation while in the A.G.’s office, wrote an Inky op ed challenging Kane’s decisions. So did Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. Kane offered her own op ed —but not in the Inquirer, which she may sue: She went to the Patriot-News instead.
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When a grand jury announced there would be no prosecutions in the death of his girlfriend, defense attorney Chuck Peruto took square aim at District Attorney Seth Williams, calling the prosecutor a “fat prick.” Looks like the war isn’t going to end there.
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The Inquirer reports that Philly D.A. Seth Williams is running for a seat on the Penn State Board of Trustees. “Elected last fall to his second four-year term as D.A., Williams acknowledged his Philadelphia job is time-consuming. But he is undeterred by the time and travel he would have to put in as an unpaid trustee of the State College-based school. The board holds two days of meetings at least a half-dozen times a year, and there are additional sessions, such as last week’s meeting to hire a new president. ‘They say if you want something to get done, give it to a busy person,’ Williams said.” There are three open seats on the 32-member board.