The D.A. Candidate Who Threw His Hat in the Ring at the Last Possible Second

Jack O'Neill is a 35-year-old ex-prosecutor who announced a surprise campaign last week.

Jack O'Neill | Photo courtesy of O'Neill's campaign

Jack O’Neill | Photo courtesy of O’Neill’s campaign

Jack O’Neill kicked off his campaign for district attorney at the last possible minute. Literally.

The first time the 35-year-old Democrat was described as a candidate by the news media was when he submitted 1,776 signatures on his nominating petitions last Tuesday — the deadline for candidates to submit their paperwork to appear on the ballot. Before then, O’Neill hadn’t put out so much as a press release about his electoral ambitions.

Politicos were left scratching their heads: Who is this mystery man? And why would he jump into a race that already had six Democrats at each other’s throats?

“The reason I got in later than most people was because I was not going to run against Seth [Williams] in a campaign that seemed like it was going to be about trashing Seth for his personal problems,” says O’Neill. “I didn’t think it would help the city. I didn’t think it would help the D.A.’s office. I didn’t think it would help people’s confidence in law enforcement.”

O’Neill spoke with Philly Mag last week for nearly an hour. He talked about his experience prosecuting the “Kensington rapist,” his plan to expand the city’s crime-fighting Focused Deterrence program, and why he believes he is the most qualified person in the race to implement big reforms. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Read our Q&As with the other D.A. candidates in the May 16th election here.

Jack O’Neill’s Platform at a Glance

  • Death penalty: He would ask for it only in “very extreme circumstances.”
  • Civil asset forfeiture: “It can be a useful tool, but it needs to be significantly reformed.”
  • Cash bail: He wants cash bail eliminated for nonviolent, low-level offenders.
  • Gifts: He wouldn’t accept gifts as D.A.
  • Super PACs: “I don’t think they should be involved.”
  • On how to fight crime: Expand the city’s Focused Deterrence program, participate in community outreach, and ensure that young people have productive things to do with their time.
  • On whether bad cops are sufficiently held accountable: “It’s hard to say. … Members of Black Lives Matter make a very good point when they say that we need to know more, there needs to be more transparency.”

Why you are running for district attorney? And why did you decide to jump into the race at the last minute?
The reason I’m running is because it’s been a passion my whole life to try to help the people of Philadelphia and, specifically, to try to address our really serious crime problem. Before I graduated law school, I worked at the D.A.’s office and spent the last 10 years there. It’s something I’m extremely, extremely passionate about. And it’s really important to me that the person who’s the next D.A. has a lot of experience being a D.A., and being a D.A. recently, so that they can address the problems that need to be addressed. All the reforms that I think the city and certainly myself feel need to be made by someone who knows how the office currently works and knows how the administration works.

The reason I got in later than most people was because I was not going to run against Seth in a campaign that seemed like it was going to be about trashing Seth for his personal problems. I didn’t think it would help the city. I didn’t think it would help the D.A.’s office. I didn’t think it would help people’s confidence in law enforcement. I thought it would really just be a very detrimental thing. And frankly my feeling about Seth is that he did some very good things. He made a lot of really good reforms to the office, made a lot of really good changes, and started a lot of things in the right direction. I just didn’t think that it would be helpful to anyone for me to come in and start attacking a person who I think, for whatever personal problems he had, really made a very valiant effort at trying to help our city.

What are the biggest accomplishments of your career in your opinion?
As a trial attorney, a lot of it comes down to cases that I worked on. I prosecuted the case of Commonwealth v. Charles Finch, which was a case where a man sexually assaulted a young woman who had cerebral palsy, which made her non-verbal. It’s the first case in Pennsylvania where we were able to use what are called speech pathologists in order to allow her to testify to the jury. That was a really proud thing of mine. I’ve spent the rest of my career lecturing on how that can be done and other ways to stick up for and make sure you give a voice to disabled witnesses.

The young woman in that case was both mentally and physically disabled and, through tremendous help from some of the people at Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities and some of their speech pathologists, we were able to allow her to stand up to the person who assaulted her, which was really, really important to me, really important to this great, great community of people who work with disabled people in our city. And frankly, I’ve had people from as far away as California ask for assistance in cases that had similar factors. And the case has been upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That was a very big accomplishment in my mind.

I also was the prosecutor in the Kensington rapist case that was Commonwealth v. Marcos Camacho. It was a man who went around sexually assaulting women who were predominantly homeless, addicted to drugs, some of them involved in prostitution throughout the Kensington area. And in order to prosecute that case, we had to really go out there, be on the street with them, gain their trust, understand what it was they were going through. That case was also successfully prosecuted and Marcos Camacho was also found guilty, and I think just as important in a way was the people who survived his sexual assaults had someone stick up for them. That neighborhood, that has tremendous problems, had wonderful people from the Special Victims Unit out there letting everyone know that we cared. And I think that the verdict made that statement, too. I think the verdict made a statement to people that we care about everyone in Philadelphia.

I also did some pretty-high profile and very important homicide cases. I worked on a case that the victim’s name was Tremaine Rogers. He was killed the same day that Trayvon Martin’s killer was found not guilty. He was in his mom’s yard playing basketball with his friends. He was a totally innocent kid with a very promising future killed by two people. Both of the defendants were defended by some of Philadelphia’s best defense attorneys. It was a very tough case. But, again, we were able to stick up for this kid and give his family the sense of justice and maybe most importantly, again, just show the neighborhood that we care about everyone and we care about this kid.

And there was another case, it was the murder of Yasin Harvey. That actually got a pretty substantial amount of media attention. He was an innocent kid that was mistaken for a rival gang member. The 64th and Callowhill gang were warring with the 62nd and Callowhill gang. Yasin Harvey was actually going to get food for his aunt, who was sick, but looked older than he was and was mistaken for a gang member and shot in a drive-by. Again, the two defendants were defended by two of Philadelphia’s best defense attorneys and [we] had to really learn a lot about those gangs and about how they operated and about what the beef was over in order to effectively investigate and prosecute that case. So, you know, I don’t want to list all of the cases I’ve ever tried with you, but these were some of the things I was really proud of doing in my career as a D.A.

How would you grade Seth Williams’s job performance?
I think that he made a lot of really important and really well-thought-out reforms. I think that that’s what I hope his legacy is. I like him a lot as a person. I liked working for him, and I was really proud to be part of a D.A.’s office that made a lot of changes in being more fair as prosecutors and more effective, because that should be the goal. Quite frankly, as far as the personal things that caused him to not be able to run in this election, they made me really sad. It was a big disappointment.

What do you think of the D.A.’s unit aimed at reviewing potentially wrongful convictions? How do you think it’s done?
I think they needed to do a lot more. But to do that, I think they needed a lot more resources and a lot more backing. It takes a lot of work to reinvestigate and, in many circumstances, essentially retry a case. They have to go back over not just the investigation but the entire trial to see if everything was done correctly. And I don’t think that there were enough lawyers involved in that. I don’t think they were given enough time and resources. A lot of the people that were involved in that also had other responsibilities, big responsibilities in the office.

And then you have things like when a case comes to a conviction on review board, and you have family members who have been looking into a case for a long time and have a lot of information they want to share, you need an attorney who has a lot of time and resources to go back in and to look at the case in the way the family members or the friends or someone else wants them to look at the case. You can’t expect two or three attorneys to go over hundreds and hundreds of pages of investigation and notes of testimony and then reinvestigate the case based on what else is needed and cover a whole bunch of other responsibilities. So I think that the conviction review board is a really good idea, but I think it needs to be significantly improved.

I want to ask you about some of Williams’s high-profile decisions. One involved an alleged assault by labor leader John Dougherty. Williams referred that case to the Attorney General’s office, saying that he had to because of his longstanding professional relationship with Dougherty. Was that the right choice?
Yeah. Their relationship was such that people objectively looking at the case would think that it couldn’t be fair. And I think in order to maintain the people of Philadelphia’s confidence in his office, then that’s what needed to be done. There’s no downside in referring a case to the Attorney General’s office. They’re very capable and they’re very able to investigate and to prosecute cases. And so if he was afraid that it would hurt the confidence of the city in him or any investigation or fair prosecution of that case, I think it was the right move.

When Lynne Abraham was D.A., as you know, she referred basically all cases involving elected officials to either the state or federal federal authorities as a matter of policy. Do you think that’s the right approach?
I don’t think you have to refer every case. I understand the policy. And I think that it is a very good idea. But I think that the people of Philadelphia felt as though, and correctly, that there wasn’t enough being done to address our political corruption, and when they rely on the District Attorney’s office to be the top law enforcers, and to be the law enforcers that are most closely tied to the community in Philadelphia, it’s not enough for the D.A.’s office to say that it’s someone else’s problem. And so I think the D.A.’s office should have a unit that looks into political corruption and investigates it and, when is needed, prosecutes.

Another high-profile decision that Williams made involved the three prosecutors who were ensnared in Porngate scandal. He decided to have them undergo sensitivity training and did not fire them. Do you think he made the right choice there?
No, I don’t. It is absolutely essential that the people of Philadelphia know that they can trust their prosecutors to not have any senses of chauvinism, bigotry, racism. Without that basic level of confidence in the District Attorney’s office, I think that the community that is our city loses confidence in us and that really significantly, significantly detracts from the D.A. office’s ability to do its job.

Each one of those individuals had different accusations related to them. For example, one had an accusation that two emails were sent to him and that he never opened them. So I think it’s important that a prosecutor treat each person as an individual and treat them differently. But for all of them, the one hour of sensitivity training they underwent clearly did not give the city and the city’s leaders confidence that the D.A.’s office had investigated whether or not there was bigotry, chauvinism, sexism, whether or not they had addressed it. I don’t think anybody felt that the one hour of sensitivity training was enough.

What would you have done instead?
Where there were emails that indicated that there was racism or sexism or chauvinism, those people would have to leave the office. Where there was a question, I think the training would be appropriate, an evaluation. But it would have to be much, much more extensive.

District Attorney Williams also decided not to charge ex-Eagles player LeSean McCoy in an alleged bar fight with two off-duty cops. Do you think that that was the right decision?
That was the wrong decision in my mind. My understanding of the case is that there was significant evidence that he assaulted them. … That was my understanding of the case and the explanation that I heard was that there were conflicting stories about what happened, and that that was a reason not to charge. And there are usually conflicting stories when there’s a large assault that occurs. It’s the job of the District Attorney’s office to investigate it thoroughly and make a determination. And when the evidence, at least as I understand it, pointed towards the fact that LeSean McCoy had assaulted individuals, that he broke the law and he should have been charged.

Would you take gifts as D.A.?

Do you think super PACS should be involved in the D.A.’s race? And if one supported you, would you be OK with that?
I don’t think they should be involved. I think typically what is happening with the super PACs is you have a lot of people who are not fighting within communities and neighborhoods of Philadelphia who are having very unbalanced influence on elections. And I don’t think that’s good. I don’t think it’s what people want. I don’t think it’s the best thing for the people of the city.

Some D.A. candidates say they won’t take any campaign donations from criminal defense attorneys who might stand across from them in court. What’s your take on that?
I don’t think that it’s necessary to say you won’t accept any money from defense attorneys. The law enforcement community in Philadelphia has a high level of trust within itself that I think can be very beneficial. I know that, for example, when I was the D.A. who ran the mental health court, I had a great relationship of trust with the public defenders who also worked in there, and I thought that was very beneficial. I think a lot of Philadelphia’s most prominent defense attorneys are former district attorneys. And so I think that it’s not necessary to say you won’t take any money from anyone who may very well represent a party that the D.A.’s office is prosecuting.

I think that, even for the people who said it, you’d have to say you’re not going to take any money from anyone to really think that there’s never going to be any possibility of a conflict. … So if you’re taking money from a large law firm, certainly members of large law firms get arrested and prosecuted for crimes. And if you’re taking money from a union, certainly members of that union will be arrested and prosecuted for a crime. I don’t think it’s necessary to say that you’re going to put the wall right there at defense attorneys.

Are you seeking support from the Fraternal Order of Police?

What is your position on civil asset forfeiture, a policy that allows district attorneys to seize people’s homes and cash even if they aren’t convicted of a crime?
I think it can be a useful tool, but it needs to be significantly reformed and people need to be very careful before they start using it in cases that aren’t fully and thoroughly investigated yet.

Another district attorney candidate, Joe Khan, argues that there is a perverse incentive in the civil asset forfeiture program: The money that’s seized goes to the District Attorney’s office. He proposes sending it to the school district instead. Would you support an idea like that?
I would.

Do you think that a conviction should be required before the D.A. seizes a person’s assets?
Yes, I do.

What is your position on cash bail?
I think that the proposals that some of the candidates have made are really good. I think that it’s extremely unfair that people are, by and large, spending their time incarcerated in our county jails because they don’t have enough money to pay bail and not because they’ve been convicted of a crime. I don’t think that that achieves our goals of reducing violence and of assisting people who need basic social services.

There’s been proposals made by some of the other candidates to remove a system that determines who is released and who’s not based on how much they can pay. And I agree with that. I would get rid of [cash bail] for nonviolent, low-level offenders.

What’s your position on the death penalty?
I think the death penalty is, for the most part, something we should do away with. I think that it is appropriate in very extreme circumstances where a defendant has attacked not only a person, but also our system of criminal justice. For example, it can be appropriate in certain cases if someone not only commits a murder, but also then murders the witnesses in the case against them. If a person kills a police officer, then the death penalty may be appropriate. I handled several death penalty cases as district attorney. Each one that I was assigned to I decertified, which means that I decided that I would not proceed on the death penalty. But that doesn’t mean that I would never be for it.

What’s your plan to fight violent crime and homicides?
I think that I have a lot of qualifications for this area. I am distinct from all the candidates in that I, up until about 12 months ago, was a D.A. and was in the homicide unit, and I spent a lot of time working on violent crime. One of the things that I have come to believe is very effective is community outreach and “Focused Deterrence.” The Focused Deterrence program has worked very successfully in South Philadelphia where it was employed. It’s obviously undergone some changes since its inception in 2012, but in its first year it decreased related homicides by approximately 70 percent. It involves every agency that you can get involved in the city and in law enforcement. It’s very, very labor-intensive. But it’s absolutely worth it. And I think that it should be employed even more in South Philadelphia and certainly in the other parts of our city that have epidemics of violence; absolutely would like to see employed in North Philadelphia and in Southwest Philadelphia.

What would the impact of that be on the city’s budget?
I don’t know what the exact figures are, and I don’t think anyone has worked out exactly what the figures are. But I do know that the mayor, going into his campaign, advocated strongly for Focused Deterrence. I do know that his budget that was just released clearly advocated for a lot of things that are needed in Focused Deterrence, like social services. Social services are probably the single most important element to effective community outreach and Focused Deterrence prosecution. One of the major components to it is making sure that when you have groups or young people that appear to be headed towards violence, that you find productive things for them to be able to do that interests them, that will occupy their time and will make them feel positive about their lives, and what will keep them away from turning towards violence.

Do you think there are racial disparities in sentencing and charging in Philadelphia? And if so, how would you address that?
I think that the modifications and the changes that District Attorney Seth Williams made with the [charging unit] were really good. And I think that continuing along those lines would be a very good way to address the racial disparities that do occur in charging. The idea is to have very experienced, very knowledgeable prosecutors doing the charging. And I think that’s a very good way to make sure that you have people looking at cases for what they really are and understanding what really occurred as best as possible. And maybe most importantly, when more investigation needs to happen, more investigation is required by the district attorney before a person is charged.

In sentencing, I think the same types of things need to be done. I think that where a person is going to be sentenced — and the District Attorney’s office has actually employed this — there needs to be documented arguments from the D.A.’s office toward why a specific sentence is appropriate. In other words, what the D.A.’s office has done is started to implement a program where, for each sentencing, a person needs to write a dissenting memorandum arguing exactly why they think a specific sentence is appropriate. And I think that is a very good way to start to address the problem. One of the things that I would also employ is a program where there’s a level of education going on constantly in the D.A.’s office to make sure that people understand there’s a disparity throughout our country in both charging and sentencing when it comes to the racial disparity, and that there are a lot of reasons for it and that those reasons are not always obvious to people in law enforcement. I think that that type of ongoing education would be extremely effective.

Philadelphia is in the midst of an opioid crisis. How would you deal with the issue, if at all, as D.A.?
It’s a multifaceted approach. Having done a lot of the cases, especially representing victims of sexual assault in the Kensington area, which is one of the worst areas hit with an opioid epidemic, one of the things that I learned is that the cycle of arresting the people who are struggling with addiction and bringing them into a county jail without adequate drug treatment and then releasing them to bring them back on the street without adequate support does not work. And I think that the solution has to start with trying in every way, shape and form that we can to help out the people who are struggling with the addiction. That means, from the minute that they’re arrested purchasing narcotics, we need to have as many social services offered to them as possible. Because spending three months in Riverside Correctional Facility or [Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility] and then being put back out onto the street with the same addiction does not work. So at arraignment, I would like to see an enormous amount of resources offered to each one of the people who are arrested with addictions to those types of narcotics.

I think that, in terms of the sales of them, there’s also a two-part problem: There’s a problem with the opioids that are in their manufacturing legal, that often lead as a gateway to addition to things like heroin. And I think that what the D.A.’s office needs to start doing is interviewing people when they’re arrested with the legally manufactured opioid narcotics — every single one of them — to find out where they are getting them and to find out why there are so many and why they’re so readily available in our neighborhoods and cities. As far as illegal, the heroin, it’s the same issue of cyclical incarceration that has not worked with people who are selling heroin. A lot of times those people are also addicted to heroin. So a determination needs to be made as to whether or not they are. Where they’re not, a lot of times those people are parts of groups that sell. And so the minute one is taken off the street and put into CFCF to await trail, that person’s brother or friend takes the exact same stash of drugs and starts selling it. And so we need to do a much better job of understanding who these dealers are and where they’re getting their narcotics and what their motivations are.

Two very interesting things, I think — and this is where folks at times can be very, very effective in stopping the sale of illegal narcotics, especially opioids — is, one, most drug dealers do not make a lot of money. In fact, if you’ve read some of the articles written by people like the authors of Freakonomics, they actually make very little money. So that’s not really the motive. The motive is more either that it’s part of a social group, that they’re members of the family, and peer pressure. Or truly a feeling — and sometimes a very realistic and rational feeling — that they don’t have a better option. Engaging with these groups that sell the drugs, giving them better options, explaining to them what the penalties are for dealing drugs and being convicted once, twice, three times, and making sure that we address any addictions that they have so that the peer pressure from that becomes, as they call it … negative peer pressure. In other words, the goal is to make the group not to want to sell. It’s a huge undertaking, but it is necessary and it’s doable. It’s been done in other parts of the country very effectively.

When it comes to users of other drugs, how would you deal with them as D.A.?
When it comes to those very addictive drugs — heroin, cocaine, crack and, although it’s not as significant an issue here as it is in a lot of other parts the country, methamphetamines, crystal meth — what I just outlined for you would be very much my approach. When it comes to things like marijuana, I don’t think that marijuana in and of itself presents a threat to the safety and security of the people in the city. So where we’re talking about the selling, the using of marijuana, it would be a very low priority in my D.A.’s office.

Other candidates have proposed charging more people with homicide for delivering drugs resulting in death. What do you think of that idea?
I think it’s a very good idea. We have a huge epidemic here in Philadelphia of people who are not only putting poison out on the streets in the form of drugs, but also in the form of actual poison. … And the only entity in the city that can protect those people is the District Attorney’s office.

Black Lives Matter argues that police officers often aren’t held accountable when they commit crimes. Do you agree or disagree with that? And how do you think Seth Williams has done when it comes to prosecuting police officers who commit crimes?
I think it’s hard to say whether or not they often are or are not effectively prosecuted for, or held accountable for, crimes. There needs to be more information on that. I think it’s a very hard assumption or very hard conclusion to come to, whether or not they are held accountable without knowing all of the facts of each case. I think that the members of Black Lives Matter make a very good point when they say that we need to know more, there needs to be more transparency, and there needs to be more information about police officers who have been alleged to have committed crimes. But I don’t have statistics — I don’t think anyone has statistics — of how many police officers have been able to get away with a crime in Philadelphia in the last five to 10 years. So I don’t think it’s fair to answer that there are a lot that do or that most do.

The bottom line is that’s where the D.A.’s office can do a lot better is with investigating each and every allegation of a crime by a police officer and then sharing that information with the media, with community groups like Black Lives Matter, and making sure that everyone understands whatever decision was made, why it was made, and making sure that everyone has a chance to have an input. The D.A. is going to have the final say, and he should and needs to have the courage to make a final say, but one example that certainly comes to mind is the Brandon Tate-Brown case. I know that the mother of that case, the mother of the man that was killed, received a lot of her information from the media. I think that that was very wrong. Information about that case should have been made available to the media, to her, to everyone that was concerned about the case on both sides so that everybody understood exactly what was going on. It shouldn’t be the case that things are released piecemeal and then people get half the information they need because it’s very important that … when police officers are accused of a crime, that they are held accountable if they actually committed a crime and that they are vindicated if they didn’t.

You want to get rid of cash bail for nonviolent offenders. You want to reform the civil asset forfeiture program. You want to do a better job fighting crime. How can you be an effective agent of change if you came from the D.A.’s office recently?
That’s exactly how I can be an effective agent of change, because I know how the D.A.’s office works and I know what needs to be changed. The person who makes those changes is the D.A. Assistant district attorneys are people who carry out the changes. I was a person who spent 10 years doing some of the hardest and most important work at the D.A.’s office — working on homicides and working on rape cases and working on cases where children were abused. And I know exactly what is needed. I know exactly what needs to be done better, and those are the things that a D.A. does. The actual D.A. So it is my 10 years of experience handling the most serious cases and the biggest investigations that make me the best candidate to make those reforms.

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