The Charges Against District Attorney Seth Williams
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.