Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams now says that his office made mistakes in the mass dismissal of criminal charges against 19,400 fugitives who skipped bail years ago and that he would reopen some "genuinely serious" cases.

He said his original intention had been to unclog the Philadelphia court system by dropping charges in thousands of mostly minor cases in which offenders fled before 1999. But as The Inquirer reported Sunday, some serious charges, including sex crimes and several robberies, were erased as well.

In an opinion piece to be published in Sunday's Inquirer, Williams said that the "vast majority" of the withdrawals made sense, but that he regretted some and would reverse them.

"Unfortunately, in a handful of cases, some genuinely serious charges slipped through and were mistakenly dismissed along with the others," he wrote. He said the charges in those cases had been miscoded by the courts and withdrawn by his office in error.

"We didn't catch the errors," he wrote.

The withdrawals, which required judicial approval, created a furor, with critics saying the move delivered a message that it paid for criminals to run. Since the news broke, the District Attorney's Office also has been busy fielding calls from defendants from years past, wondering about the status of their cases.

Williams invited victims of all the purged cases to contact his office if they believed the crimes could be successfully prosecuted.

"These dismissals are not permanent," he wrote. "We can and will ask the court to reinstate charges that should never have been withdrawn."

Carol Lavery, the state's victim advocate, said Friday she was encouraged by Williams' change of heart.

"I'm very glad to hear they've rethought this process," she said. "I think that's very good for victims."

Still, at least one victim said she had changed her mind about pursuing her case.

The woman, who was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in 1987, told The Inquirer last week she was eager to see her assailant stand trial. On Friday, she said she was no longer so sure.

"I don't want to bring back memories," the woman said through a Spanish interpreter. "I just want to get on with my life."

In a sweeping move to lower Philadelphia's massive fugitive tally, Williams and Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille urged the city's top judges to close criminal cases and cancel bench warrants for thousands of defendants in cases dating to 1998 and earlier.

The action wiped out charges against accused drug dealers, drunk drivers, thieves, prostitutes, burglars, sex offenders, and other suspects.

Williams, in defending the decision, said many of the old cases were no longer viable. "Many of the defendants were now senior citizens, or even dead," he wrote.

According to an Inquirer review of the cases, the average age of the fugitive defendants is 51.

In urging the withdrawals, Castille had noted that the court system was about to stock the FBI's national database with information on Philadelphia fugitives.

He said it made little sense to fill that database with offenders wanted for "victimless" offenses from years ago - especially as prosecutors likely would never extradite such defendants.

The chief justice said he had urged Williams to purge cases that prosecutors had no plans to pursue, but left it up to the district attorney to select which cases to withdraw.

In his opinion article, Williams praised Castille, saying the chief justice had faced "unjustified" criticism for his role in urging the purge.

Williams said his office would be more vigilant in helping the courts to pursue fugitives long before their cases grow stale.

Already this year, Williams had two veteran prosecutors, Laurie Malone and Peter Salib, pore over fugitive cases to create a "most-wanted" list of serious offenders.

He also delegated one of his detectives to work with the fugitive squad of the U.S. Marshals Service, according to First Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGettigan.

And Williams is advocating an even more aggressive step - trying fugitive defendants in absentia.

In April, Castille ordered Philadelphia Municipal Court judges to hold preliminary hearings when defendants failed to show. Now, Williams is pushing to see that happen at the next level, at trials in Common Pleas Court.

Castille, along with fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery, a former administrative judge of Municipal Court, also named a blue-ribbon panel to study ways to overhaul the courts.

The two justices acted in response to an Inquirer series published in December that reported that Philadelphia had 47,000 long-term fugitives - a figure cut more than 40 percent by the recent purging.

The blue-ribbon panel will focus in part on the courts' dysfunctional bail system and has reached out for advice to the Pretrial Justice Institute, a think tank in Washington.

In an interview, Castille said the courts could do a better job in selecting defendants for release by more carefully vetting their backgrounds and their likelihood of flight.

Philadelphia judges have withdrawn nearly 21,000 criminal cases from 1969 to 1998. To see whether a defendant had a case withdrawn, search by name, year, or crime at

www.philly.com/withdrawn.

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To read The Inquirer's investigative series on the city's staggering number of fugitives, use interactive media, and see follow-up articles, go to

www.philly.com/courts

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