Philadelphia DA emerges from predecessor's shadow

AP News
Posted: Apr 05, 2011 3:10 AM
Philadelphia DA emerges from predecessor's shadow

His predecessor was known as the tough cookie, but few would accuse Seth Williams of timidity after a little more than a year as top prosecutor in the nation's fifth-largest city.

The 44-year-old Williams has pursued cases that have shaken up the establishment, put him in sensitive positions with his own church and irked his predecessor. Along the way, in the eyes of another notable former Philly DA, he's shown a rare combination _ courage, intelligence and likability _ that could put him on a path to the mayor's office.

"It's a great recipe for political success," said Ed Rendell, who went on to become mayor and later a two-term Pennsylvania governor. "People respect you even if they disagree with your decision."

In 14 months on the job, Williams, a devout Roman Catholic and former altar boy, has:

_ filed charges against two Catholic priests and a high-ranking cleric in a groundbreaking sex-abuse probe.

_ filed eight murder charges against an abortion doctor accused of using scissors to routinely kill babies born alive.

_ pushed most marijuana possession cases out of the main court system and revamped the organization of city courts based on geography.

_ ordered a review of 15 months' worth of drunken-driving cases after the reliability of alcohol breath tests was called into doubt.

Some of his quick-time accomplishments, though, have rankled his former boss, longtime DA Lynne Abraham, who proudly endorsed the "one tough cookie" moniker given to her by former Mayor Frank Rizzo and was once dubbed "America's deadliest DA" by The New York Times Magazine for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty.

"I had a predecessor who her mantra was about being tough on crime. She was the 'tough cookie,'" Williams, the city's first black district attorney, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The reality is, if you're tough on everything, you end up being tough on nothing. We have to be smart on crime and not just talk tough."

In January, a year after taking over, Williams' office released a scathing grand jury indictment against Dr. Kermit Gosnell, accusing him of running a filthy late-term-abortion mill in west Philadelphia and charging him with eight counts of murder for allegedly killing a patient and severing the spinal cords of seven babies born alive.

"This wasn't about women necessarily exercising a legal right to have an abortion," Williams said. "This was about a doctor whose business model was one that the births they would be induced and that the children would be born and in many cases they were born alive and then murdered external to the mother. And that's homicide."

Just a month after the Gosnell announcement came the grand jury report charging two priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher with raping boys in the 1990s. And in a first in the church-wide sex abuse scandal, a former high-ranking official also was charged with child endangerment for allegedly transferring problem priests to new parishes without warning anyone of prior sex-abuse complaints.

"It had nothing to do with my religion what they were doing," Williams said. "They could have been agnostic, they could have been Baptists, Buddhists, Quakers. They had to be prosecuted for what they did."

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said only that the church would continue to work cooperatively with Williams and his office.

Williams acknowledges carefully timing the grand jury report, delaying its release by eight days to ensure it did not come down during Catholic Schools Week.

"This wasn't a witch hunt into the Catholic Church," he said.

The report has been followed by a flurry of lawsuits brought by people alleging they were abused as children.

Frank Finnegan, a 49-year-old postal worker who lives in suburban Philadelphia, sued the archdiocese last month, alleging he was abused by a priest in the late 1960s. He said Williams is helping provide closure, even though they've never met.

"If I do," Finnegan said, "he's going to get the greatest hug in the world from me."

Born to an unwed mother in 1967, Williams went into foster care and was adopted by a west Philadelphia couple, serving as an altar boy at his local church. He graduated from Central High School in 1985 and went on to Penn State University, where he became president of the undergraduate student government.

After graduating from law school at Georgetown University, he served for 10 years as an assistant prosecutor under Abraham and unsuccessfully challenged his boss in 2005 before ultimately serving a term as city inspector general. Abraham decided not to run again in 2009 after 19 years as the city's first female DA, opening the door for Williams.

"I just look at her as she's in the rearview mirror. She was a prosecutor for a different age, a different time," said Williams, a major in the Army Reserve. "It was clear that the tough talk really didn't result in what we needed. She took great pride in having more Americans on death row than any other city, but Philadelphia still leads the nation in the rate of homicides caused by handguns. So there's no cause and effect on the loud bark and actually reducing gun violence."

When Williams announced his plan for dealing with small marijuana possession cases, she made public statements that "local gangs and marijuana growers everywhere are positively overjoyed" and that the city might have the new slogan: 'Welcome to Philadelphia, Light Up a Joint.'

She has also professed skepticism for his plans to clear up the court system by assigning prosecutors to specific neighborhoods, a change Williams believes will help bring more cases to justice.

Abraham, who now works at a private law firm, said she's proud of her record and doesn't understand why Williams still talks about her.

"It's a year and a half; stop talking about me," Abraham told the AP. "He stands on his record. I'll stand on mine. ... You stand or fall on your own record."

One political expert said that, with the next open mayor's race five years away, Williams has at least started himself on a path that could lead to City Hall.

"Basically, now you look at him and he's got nothing but strength," said Randall Miller, a political science professor at St. Joseph's University. "Right now, he looks like a golden boy. ... He would be a very attractive candidate."

Williams, married and with three daughters, said he wants to be DA as long as the public will have him and has no desire to become mayor.

"When people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I tell people I would love to be the president _ the president of Penn State University," he said.

Rendell doesn't buy it. After serving longer as DA, Rendell said, Williams will likely see that only as mayor can he really tackle the root causes of crime.

"Eventually, if you care about making our society better," Rendell said, "you've got to do something other than dealing with the end result."