District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham spoke in depth about her tenure in an interview with Inquirer reporters.
She was joined by four of her top aides - longtime First Deputy Arnold H. Gordon; Deputy District Attorney John P. Delaney Jr., head of the Trial Division; Assistant District Albert J. Toczydlowski, supervisor of the city's Gun Violence Task Force; and Assistant District Attorney Sara Hart, an expert on prison litigation.
Abraham, who is stepping down early next month after 18 years as the city's top prosecutor, talked about a host of issues, from her office's performance to witness fear to the problem of fugitives from justice.
Here are excerpts from the interview.
- Olivia Biagi
Regarding figures on court outcomes, Abraham said: "You can make figures say anything you want. Those figures that you sent to us can make people think anything they want.
". . . You can lie about the number of cases. You can lowball your cases. You can raise the conviction rates; you can do anything you want with them. But those figures don't necessarily tell the story of this office."
In her opinion, Abraham said, justice should not be based on numbers. "I'm a true public servant. I don't do justice by numbers.
". . . Every day we walk into court ready to do the right thing, to give victims and accused a fair trial, and while we're concerned about crime rates and we're concerned about having the right outcome, the right outcome is not done by numbers.
"The right outcome is done by doing the right thing and having the proper result."
Abraham said that by focusing on the numbers, a prosecutor might become motivated by just getting convictions, regardless of the quality of the "wins."
"There's a terrible price that we pay for prosecutors who want to please the media, or please their electorate, by saying, 'Oh, um, we had a 98 percent conviction rate. Isn't that great?'
"I can do that. I can tell you how I can do it: I just don't charge crimes that the person is really culpable of, I plead them out to something or anything just to get the right numbers. I can have a 100 percent conviction rate, or maybe 98."
To do that, she said, a district attorney would merely say, "I'm going to charge less, plead down most, make deals, raise your conviction rate. Problem solved."
When asked how she thought she and her office should be evaluated, Abraham was clear that it shouldn't be by numbers.
"Here's how I judge: Every day, this group of people and every person in this office gets up to work ready to serve the public, in an honest, uncompromising fashion. We're there to do justice. . . . You can't do justice by numbers. You can only do justice by doing the best job you can."
The bottom line, Abraham said, was that in her years as D.A., "not one time have you ever been able to say that Lynne lied about something, or she told her deputies or her individuals to cheat about a case, to hide evidence. We fire people for hiding evidence."
Abraham said prosecutors had to be careful about being too selective about the cases they bring.
For instance, she said, "if you're a victim of a sexual assault, even though it isn't the perfect case, you should have confidence in going to the police and prosecutor.
"They won't laugh you out of the room, they won't tell you your case is not important, they won't lower the crime rate on your back, they won't take your trip to the hospital and write it off as the cost of living in a big city. The price is that you have an honest and honorable prosecutor."
Abraham said her antipathy to statistics dated back to the 15 years she served as a city judge before becoming district attorney.
There, she said, she learned that "the judge is judged by what's your productivity."
"As a matter of fact, when I left the bench, the last thing I did was to write a letter to the court administrator, when I left to come here, to say that I don't believe in doing justice by numbers," she said.
"They don't ask you to do justice; they wanted to know from the judges: What's your disposition rate?
"Are you a productive judge because you can dispose . . . 39 or 40 or 50 percent of your cases? . . . Did you do justice by them?"
To boost numbers, she said, a judge thinks, "I blow out cases, I dismiss cases, I defer cases, I lowball cases, I 'not-guilty' cases. I'm a productive judge. I get a big blue ribbon.
"I think it's even worse now."
Her longtime top aide, First Deputy Arnold H. Gordon, said there were other key indicators besides statistics.
"Look at the grand-jury reports that we've written, and the investigations that underlie those reports, for the archdiocese, for DHS," the city Department of Human Services, he said.
"Walk into a courtroom and watch one of our homicide prosecutors, or family violence and sexual-assault prosecutors, prosecute a case in front of a jury and decide when they're doing a good job and giving it their all and covering all the bases."
Achievements. Abraham said that in her tenure, her office had won significant state constitutional and legislative victories.
It lobbied for a change in bail rules to permit denial of bail if a person posed a threat.
It won a legal change permitting children to testify via closed-circuit television and avoid facing their alleged abusers.
It fought to end a cap placed on the city prison population.
In light of this record, she said, "I'm so incensed that you do justice by the numbers. It would be so wrong. It would be so low-rent of The Inquirer to put a period on the end of my tenure here to say, 'Oh, well, she had a conviction rate of X percent.' "
Abraham also said that while the system has its problems, it still works.
"We have tremendous currency in doing the right thing by every group. The justice system isn't perfect, but it's not broken. It just - it does need maintenance. It's really like a ship that you build with a variety of builders. Then you have to repair this and fix that. The ship still floats. It does have its lurches and its push-backs, but it does work."
Witness intimidation. When asked about witness intimidation, Abraham responded that it had gotten "much worse."
"It's endemic. People are frightened to death about what's happened."
All too often, she said, witnesses won't come forward.
"Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything. Barroom shootings, common. Fifty people: Everybody was in the bathroom. Nobody saw anything; nobody heard anything. It's quite common - very corrosive of the system."
Fugitives. Abraham said that the number of fugitives had been a problem in the city for years, as far back as when Ed Rendell was district attorney. (Rendell served two terms, beginning in 1978.)
Abraham also cited her correspondence with various city administrations since 2000 about reducing the count of fugitives.
"Nothing has changed. Nothing has ever changed," she said.
Abraham said that the city should aggressively go after forfeited bail.
"I guarantee you if you had a son whom you and your wife signed your house over for, and he failed to appear and we took your house away, guess what? Your son would have his body in court five minutes after we said, 'Guess what? . . . You're going to be living in a tent.' "
Abraham said that once people knew the city would come after them, "Everybody will be running to come into court."