Seth Williams is Philadelphia’s new District Attorney, replacing his former boss, Lynne Abraham.
R. Seth Williams installed as Philadelphia D.A.¹
By Miriam Hill, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
At a swearing-in ceremony attended by more than 1,000 people and punctuated by cheers and applause, Philadelphia’s first African American district attorney, R. Seth Williams, vowed to fix a “broken” justice system and “make Philadelphia the safest big city in America.”
Achieving that goal would mark a complete reversal of the city’s current status as a place with high crime rates where criminals often walk free.
At his inauguration yesterday in Verizon Hall, Williams, 43, said he would improve conviction rates, especially for violent offenders. “Four years from now, we will not have the lowest conviction rate in the country,” he said.
He cited an Inquirer investigative series in December reporting that Philadelphia had the highest violent-crime rate among big cities – and the nation’s lowest felony-conviction rate.
“The Philadelphia criminal-justice system is broken,” Williams said, despite the hard work of “dedicated and underpaid public servants who toil hard every day.”
I should have written about it earlier, but the Inquirer had some significant articles concerning criminal justice — and the lack thereof — in Philadelphia over the past couple of months.
Judge’s message to lawyers: Work faster
By Nancy Phillips and John Sullivan, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writers
Citing courtroom delays that plague Philadelphia’s criminal-justice system, a top city judge has pressed court-appointed defense lawyers to move their cases along swiftly.
President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe of Common Pleas Court said her office would monitor how long lawyers take to handle cases and consider those “disposition rates” in making future assignments.
Dembe announced the change in a Dec. 17 letter to about 300 lawyers who represent indigent clients at the court’s expense. The letter came in response to an Inquirer series that depicted a city court system in crisis – beset by low conviction rates, a massive fugitive problem, long court delays, and dismissal of thousands of cases each year without any decision on the merits.
“My goal is to have lawyers think twice – especially if they’re operating on our dime – before they ask for a continuance that isn’t really justified,” Dembe said in an interview last week.
Lawyers who handle court appointments bristled at her decision to take aim at them.
Samuel C. Stretton, a veteran defense lawyer whose practice includes a significant amount of court-appointed work, said Dembe’s effort was “misguided” and would do nothing but deprive defendants of quality counsel.
But, of course, the article continued to note that by seeking continuances, the defense attorneys hope that the long delays will frustrate the prosecution, discourage witnesses and lead to the whole case falling apart. In Philadelphia, defendants walk free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of violent-crime cases, giving the city the nation’s lowest felony-conviction rate among large urban counties. Judge Dembe was, in effect, asking court-appointed defense attorneys to not do their best to get their clients off. It should be up to the prosecutors — that would be District Attorney Williams — and the judges to work against frivolous continuances; you can’t expect the defense attorneys to not work in their clients’ best interests.
How about this one?
Gun Arrests Galore, No Convictions At All
By John Sullivan, Emilie Lounsberry, and Dylan PurcellPhiladelphia Inquirer Staff Writers
Just 23 years old, John Gassew has been arrested 44 times, mostly on charges of sticking a gun in people’s faces and robbing them.
But in the eyes of the law, Gassew isn’t an armed robber.
He’s never been convicted.
Despite being called one of the city’s more prolific, and sometimes violent, stickup men by police – they say he bashed a delivery man over the head with a bat, shot at a 13-year-old neighbor, and smashed in the face of a robbery victim – Gassew has been sentenced to jail only once, for a drug charge.
The Northeast Philadelphia man has become so confident in his ability to beat charges, police say, that he openly scoffs at the system. In December 2007, officers arrested him as he ran down a street, leaving behind a car that police said was filled with the loot from 21 robberies he committed in just one weekend.
“It looked like a store in there,” said Detective Bob Kane.
As Kane and Detective Robert Conn of the Northeast Detective Division tell it, when they confronted Gassew with four trash bags of evidence, he leaned back in his chair and told them he’d take his chances in court.
“The bad guys know that if they come in the front door, the back door is usually open,” Conn said.
It’s an all-too-common story in Philadelphia: A small-time criminal emboldened by a system that fails time and again to put him away graduates to more violent acts and, eventually, a standoff with police.
Gassew has beaten cases in almost every way – including three trials in which he was found not guilty after witnesses changed their story on the stand or were found not credible.
“Twenty-three years old and 44 priors. There’s no excuse for that,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
The new District Attorney has his work cut out for him. To meet the standard of success he has set for himself, he has to go far beyond the authority of his own office. He has to get more help from the police, who are already overworked, he has to get more help from the judges, many of whom either coddle crimionals or are outright idiots, but, most importantly, he has to get help, a lot more help, from the community. A lot of the cases fall apart because witnesses are intimidated and change their stories or fail to appear in court.
¹ – The Philadelphia Inquirer, Tuesday, 5 January 2010, p. A-1