I can remember a time when Seth Williams seemed like a breath of fresh air. Lynne Abraham had been Philadelphia's district attorney for 14 long years -- long enough to win a New York Times Magazine profile as America's "Deadliest D.A." and enshrine a hard-nosed brand of criminal justice that seemed to flow more from Hammurabi the Lawgiver than the U.S. Constitution.
Williams replaced her in 2009 (after almost defeating her in a 1-on-1 primary in 2005) to become Philadelphia's 24th D.A. and the first African-American. In fact, he was the first black district attorney in the history of Pennsylvania. No one expected Williams to be "soft on crime," but there was an expectation that in a tough town where justice had so often been brutal and unfair to African-Americans (for example, this 1980s episode in which an assistant D.A. taught other prosecutors how to strike blacks from juries), the new guy was going to be a reformer.
Or so we were told.
Seven years later, Williams is embroiled in scandal and controversy. The FBI is investigating his activities. The city's top prosecutor had to make the embarrassing admission that he's failed to disclose a staggering $160,000-plus in various gifts and freebies, including one dude who liked Seth so much that he gave him a $45,000 new roof. (That's above and beyond Brotherly Love!) There's anger from activists that his office has failed to prosecute, at least initially, a complaint by a Bernie Sanders delegate that she was sexually assaulted during the DNC. (The woman says a Williams underling told her it wasn't prosecutable since the alleged attacker was drunk -- a staggering claim that looks worse when you remember that Williams kept the senders of pornographic emails on his senior staff waaaay longer than he should have.)
That's the stuff that grabs the headlines, and yet that's not really the worst of it. What is?
Consider the case of Jimmy Dennis, convicted and sentenced to Death Row in the 1991 killing of a high school student over her $450 earrings. There was no physical evidence linking Dennis -- who said he was on a bus on the other other side of Philadelphia when the killing occurred --to the murder, just a few eyewitnesses, some of whom later recanted. In 2013, a judge found police never followed up on a report from a girl who was with the victim, Chedell Ray Williams, and who ID'ed two different people as the killers, among other irregularities, and ordered either a new trial for Dennis or that he be set free.
Williams could have blamed the whole mess on Abraham -- the woman he'd tried to oust in 2005 -- and given Dennis his freedom. Instead, Seth Williams and his staff have spent three years fighting the judge's ruling. The D.A. said that "[b]ecause of the eye witnesses and his pattern of behavior, I am only left to conclude the federal judge's ruling was less to do with the facts or settled law than her own political opinion or philosophy." Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled against the prosecution and again ordered freedom for Dennis or a new trial. As I write this, Dennis is still on Death Row.
That ruling didn't get as much attention as it should have, because the news was all over a similar story: The case of Anthony Wright, who was freed yesterday. Like Dennis, Wright was arrested for a grisly killing in 1991 -- the rape and murder of a 77-year-old neighbor in Nicetown -- and was convicted of murder during Abraham's tenure. Like Dennis, the case against Wright had significant hole; in 2014, Wright's appellate lawyers got DNA testing that linked a different man, a neighborhood crack addict who died in 2002, to the crime. In spite of that, Williams' office developed a new theory of the killing and insisted on re-trying Wright, which kept him behind bars for three more long years before his acquittal yesterday. The jury forewoman was furious...at the D.A.'s office. "I'm angry," she said after the verdict, adding: "The city should never have brought this case."
Call me crazy, but while getting a new roof or a Caribbean vacation on someone else's dime is certainly "bad optics," as the pundits say, isn't depriving an innocent human being of his freedom for three years a much greater sin?
We've had more than seven years on which to evaluate Seth Williams as D.A., and the picture is pretty clear. It's the same-old, same-old. The police and the prosecutors -- even those from Philly's "bad old days" of the latter 20th Century -- are always right, regardless of the facts or the public's rights. Instead of giving Philadelphia its homegrown Bill of Rights, he sold the people who voted for him a bill of goods.
Consider, too, the death penalty. In recent years, six inmates on Pennsylvania's Death Row have been exonerated, including several from Philadelphia, but when Gov. Wolf wisely moved to clamp a moratorium on capital punishment, Williams filed a lawsuit to try to keep it in place. That's not to say there haven't been some reforms during Williams' tenure, some of it from the D.A., a lot of it thanks to outside pressure -- such as the decriminalization of pot, driven by City Hall. Most of it has been too little, or too late.
Maybe I'm fired up on this because I'm currently (and belatedly) reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It's arguably the most important U.S. book of the 21st Century; it shows how the so-called "war on drugs" was a pretext to rob Americans of our once-revered 4th Amendment rights that prevented illegal searches and seizures, and how that drug war targeted people of color to create a new form of social control that replaced Jim Crow segregation, and slavery before that.
America's district attorneys have been the front-line soldiers in this repulsive campaign -- overcharging defendants and filling the billions of dollars worth of new prisons with non-violent felons, often for small to middling drug-related offenses. And the politics have made it virtually impossible for anyone whose philosophy isn't locking lots of people up for as long as possible to win an election. It's now difficult to even imagine a D.A. who doesn't see his job as defending cops and other prosecutors, no matter how bad their mistakes. People who deserve a second chance, some people who are innocent, and their families have all suffered. Seth Williams didn't create that mess. But he's done next to nothing to make it better.
As luck would have it, Philadelphia elects its district attorney in 2017. Normally, that's a slam dunk for the incumbent. But the crisis of Seth Williams' ethical failings may have also created an opportunity. Philadelphia desperately a new district attorney. But the city also needs a new kind of district attorney -- one who'll make ending the warped policies and the Anthony-Wright-type mistakes of the '80s, '90s, and '00s his or her top priority, and become a national role model in reversing the New Jim Crow. Just imagine such a person taking the oath in January 2018. And then, to steal a phrase, we'll get on our knees and pray we don't get fooled again.