Law & Order: A Q&A With Seth Williams

The new DA goes on the record about his first 99 days on the job.

By Daniel Denvir
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Apr. 13, 2010

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Seth Williams

Seth Williams has been Philadelphia’s District Attorney for 99 days. The city’s first black DA, Williams campaigned to be “smart on crime,” a not-so-subtle dig at his capital-punishment-loving predecessor, Lynne Abraham—once dubbed “the deadliest DA,” by The New York Times—who retired after 18 years. PW sat down with Williams to discuss some of the mounting issues facing his office: holding corrupt and violent cops accountable, the death penalty, the city’s low conviction rate and the 47,000 fugitives on the lamb, flash mobs and juvenile offenders. And, of course, keeping pot smokers out of jail.

PW: How’s it going so far?
SW: I’m so surprised that we’ve been able to implement and make so much progress on all types of policies that I thought would have taken a much greater period of time ... and much more cajoling of different ... stakeholders in the criminal-justice system. One, there’s a new DA. Two, the Inquirer’s year-and-a-half investigatory study of the criminal-justice system and all the follow-up stories. People are now willing to see that the criminal-justice system does need reform. When I ran for DA four years ago, I was vilified by my predecessor as if I was throwing stones against the castle. No one had ever said, “Philadelphia leads the nation in the rate of felonies that are dismissed at the preliminary hearing,” or that “Philadelphia leads the nation in the number of homicides caused by handguns.” And third, everyone’s broke ... trying to find ways to make more with less.

What are the things that are moving ahead more quickly than you would have imagined?

We’re going to have significant changes with preliminary hearings ... I wanted to expedite things and make them much like they are in the rest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So we’re going to see some changes, where the defense has to state if it’s ready first ... So then they can’t game and say they’re not ready or whatever, based on our status. And we’re going to move the first hearing date from 3 to 10 days to 10 to 21 days. That will give the defense attorney a little more time so they can go meet with their client.

You’ve proposed making some changes to how marijuana possession is dealt with?

Some people took it to mean that we’re decriminalizing marijuana—but we’re not. We’re just going to find a more effective way to get those cases through the court system. We have about 3,000 to 5,000 cases every year where people possess a de minimis amount of marijuana. It’s less than 30 grams. It’s less than a couple of cigarettes. Those cases, people are going to be arrested, they’re going to be fingerprinted. But instead of us analyzing the drug itself, paying for the cost, making copies of all the paper work ... What we want to do is take those cases out of municipal court, because in the long run they’re only going to get three months of nonreporting probation.

Would it not make more sense to just decriminalize it?

Well, that’s an issue for another day. I’m trying to do things incrementally: to save money, to free up our resources for those that are truly violent. I don’t want your readers or any readers to think that we’re decriminalizing it—I’m not condoning people that smoke pot ... I’m not saying go out and get high. [But] They’re not public enemy No. 1. Fast Times at Ridgemont High—what was Sean Penn’s character? He might be a menace to himself; he’s not working hard in school maybe.

He might be a menace to his parents.

He might be a menace to them because he’s still living in the basement and eating Doritos at three o’clock in the morning. But we have to deal with people who are a menace to society…Spicoli!

Going back to the reforms prompted by the Inquirer series: It’s clear that some changes need to be made to preliminary hearings. But is it possible that we might throw out the baby with the bathwater if we allow more cases to proceed on hearsay evidence? During your campaign you said that the court system is also clogged with weak cases, junk cases. So it’s not just that too few people are being prosecuted.

Right. I recognize that. So my first thing is that I’ll be meeting with the Supreme Court and judges to fix some things. I’ve doubled the staff that we have in our charging unit to more accurately review all the arrests, to ask the right questions of the police, to make sure we’re charging the right people and charging them appropriately.

The Inquirer series seemed to imply that the court system was biased toward defendants and that there are too few people in prison. The article even said that if all of the 47,000 fugitives were captured at one time, it would “fill Philadelphia’s prisons five times over.” Do we want that?

We have seven times the number of people in state prison today than we did 30 years ago. But we’re not seven times safer. We’ve seen a dramatic spike in incarceration for people who are nonviolent. I want people to be incarcerated who are violent people. And I think we have to do more to make sure that the first time people are arrested, they don’t get arrested a second and third time. So again: It’s not the severity of punishment that changes behavior, it’s the certainty of punishment. And right now, there’s no certainty of punishment. People just know that they’ll get away with things, most likely.

During your campaign, you mentioned implementing an alternative to incarceration program called Back on Track, modeled on something from San Francisco that focuses on education and jobs. Is that still on the table?

We’re moving fast with that. We’re creating partnerships with Philadelphia public and private ventures, we’re trying to create a partnership with the Lenfest Foundation and other foundations to support it. If we were to take 200 people a year from Philadelphia that could be going to state prison, at $40,000 a year, these are people who for the most part sold two sugar packets worth of crack. These are first-time nonviolent offenders, so instead of sending them to state prison, put them into the Back on Track Program, have them do drug and alcohol treatment if that’s what they need, do community service, address their literacy needs. The recidivism rate for San Francisco is about 5 percent. Here, 73 percent of people get rearrested in a year.

Flash mobs: Clearly a big problem, and when big problems like this happen, there’s a lot of tough talk. I was concerned by some of the sentences being handed out. Were these kids sent away for three years actually found guilty of committing violent acts? Or were they just one of a thousand kids out on the street?

The first group convicted were people who had run through Macy’s and turned over stuff and threw stuff and were violent in Macy’s. Knocking over random shoppers and destroying property. So Judge Dougherty heard the cases and found people guilty, and then based upon what they’d done previously, he made sentences for these people. So it wasn’t just like these were first-time people. We have no problem with people exercising their First Amendment right to meet, and the right to demonstrate their opinions and speak. But when you get a thousand to two thousand kids showing up at an intersection, that can lend itself to bad news. I think that those sentences were for people who had been violent. But still, by law in Pennsylvania, three or more people agree to be disorderly; that by definition is a riot if someone gets hurt or property is damaged. Is it that you had a thousand people, and 50 were being violent, and then maybe person 82, who wasn’t being violent was running, and got caught up in it and the cop just caught them because they were the slow antelope? It’s possible. Hopefully, though, when the testimony was at trial or we were asking questions at the charging unit, it wasn’t just that the person was a slow antelope, it was that maybe they were a slow antelope that had also been destructive or violent.

Either you or the mayor at the press conference said that 95 percent of the kids out there were just bored teenagers who wanted to be with other bored teenagers.

When I was a teenager I would go down to South Street. Want to see the girls, walk around. Didn’t have much money in my pocket ... get a slice of pizza, maybe get a soda. And just go home.

I don’t buy the mayor’s contention that he didn’t visit South Street until he was 18.

Well, he went to St. Joe’s Prep.

What about the threats to hold parents responsible for their kids’ behavior. Is there any evidence that holding parents criminally responsible is effective?

It’s not that we’re going to hold every parent accountable for every criminal act of kids, because kids have free will ... but when kids are chronically truant—50 percent of all the public high school students in Philadelphia drop out. That’s an amazing statistic. We’re set up for failure for a generation to come. So it behooves all of us to find a better way. And the possibility of Senate Bill 99, the Parent Accountability Act, of holding some parents accountable, that’s just another possible tool.

You show a clip of the infamous May 2008 police beating of three shooting suspects in one of your campaign videos. Police Commissioner Ramsey fired four of the cops involved. But after a grand jury found them innocent, an arbitration panel ordered them reinstated to their positions. The Fraternal Order of Police threw a welcome-home happy hour.

Right. Well, we can’t really do anything about that case now. But what I have done is I have appointed Curtis Douglas to be the deputy of our investigations division, and we’re revamping our protocol on how we handle these cases. People saw within the first three weeks of my administration a police officer we allege shot and killed someone while off duty. People saw quickly that what my predecessor had sent to a grand jury, we quickly—he deserves to be arrested, he was arrested. Frank Tepper was arrested for the homicide of William Panas Jr. So hopefully people will see that moving forward, we’re going to apply the same standard to everybody, no matter who they are or what their job is, or who their father is, or what they look like.

The NAACP charged that your predecessor steered the grand jury towards an acquittal in the 2008 case. Do you think in that case and in other cases that Lynn Abraham zealously sought a conviction?

I mean, there are so many things I could say. I’d rather just not look in the rearview mirror.

There have been a number of police corruption cases over the past year: there’s Officer Jeffrey Cujdik who allegedly lied on search warrants and basically robbed convenience stores. Another member of the Narcotics Field Unit, Officer Thomas Tolstoy, allegedly raped women during drug raids. Investigations of serious wrongdoing against five Camden police officers recently led prosecutors to throw out drug charges in 185 related cases. In April 2009, Assistant Defender Bradley S. Bridge filed a petition asking for 53 cases involving these cops to be reopened. Are these convictions tainted?

Well, again, we’re always willing to review cases. We have to protect the due process rights of the accused no matter who they are. But we definitely take very seriously any allegations of misconduct by the police, elected officials, and municipal employees. That’s why we have a special investigations unit.

What about those 53 petitions to reopen cases filed by Assistant Attorney Bradley Bridge?

That’s something that I’m not aware of. I’m sure that will wind its way to me, and I know Mr. Bridge very well, and I respect him. I’m sure that is something that will come to me in due course.

Something that you’ve spoken about occasionally in the past is a conviction-integrity unit, to ensure that people found guilty of a crime are really guilty.

It’s our job to make sure we do the right thing all the time. That’s something the DA works hard at now. But to formally create something as a check and balance is something I’m seriously considering. I know the DA in Montgomery County is considering it; the DA in Manhattan recently instituted something similar. So it’s something we definitely want to look at.

During your campaign you said that your predecessor overused the death penalty, and you pledged to set up a Capital Case Review Committee. What’s going on with that?

Now, the first assistant, the chief of the homicide unit, the deputy of the trial division, the chief of the post-conviction relief act unit, and the deputy of the law division, all review cases where a DA believes there are appropriately aggravating factors for us to move forward with a request for the death penalty. Before it was a much more haphazard—not haphazard, ad hoc, way. Now we have a set protocol for each of those people, reviewing the facts that we have.

Have prosecutors been seeking the death penalty at a lower rate than before?

It’s still very early. But I’ve only signed off on two cases since I’ve been here.

As a former Inspector General, how do you feel about City Council’s attempt to defund and defang the office?

It appears that the current inspector general is really trying to get involved with criminal investigations, which is not the role of the Inspector General’s Office. It appears they are getting involved with things that are really the jurisdiction of the US Attorney’s office, or the DAs office, or the Attorney General’s office. Their job, once they’ve discovered something is criminal is to refer it to one of those criminal prosecutors, because they could muddy up the investigation, violate people’s fourth amendment rights—fifth amendment, sixth amendment due process rights—because they are government.

So are we going to see this resolved peacefully between the two offices?

As long as they’re doing what their job is, they’ll be no problem.

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1. Vince said... on Apr 14, 2010 at 03:40AM

“Who cares that he's black? We're not going to be a colorblind society until the media quits pointing it out ever chance it gets. He's a our newest DA, period. I wish him luck in ridding Philly of the scum that prevents it from being a great city. Hopefully he'll start in City Hall.”

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2. Steve Tweedy said... on Apr 15, 2010 at 11:40AM

“How come no one ever mentions our new DA's abbbyyysssmaalll track record in the prosecutor's office?”

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3. Anonymous said... on Apr 16, 2010 at 03:37PM

“Great Job Seth!
Thinking outside the box is what we need to address this crisis.
Change is not only smart, it's necessary!”

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