Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the one thing he wants people in the city to understand is whether crime happens on the streets or in the suites, his office applies the same standard of justice.
Whether it’s a dope-slinging guy on a corner with an illegal gun in his pocket or a corrupt politician taking bribes and payoffs, the justice that applies to “Pookie” and “Ray-Ray” is the same that applies to a cop who stains his badge, or a wayward politician or priest, he said.
“I’m here to prove that the same justice applies to everyone,” Williams said. “From the corners at Broad and Erie to Germantown and Bethlehem in Chestnut Hill. It doesn’t matter. If you shoot someone while trying to rob them or if you’re involved in a conspiracy to move pedophile priests from one parish to another, we’re going to prosecute you for it. That’s what I want Philadelphians to know; if crime happens on the streets or in the suites the same justice applies.”
Williams, 48, achieved a decisive victory with his election as district attorney of Philadelphia in 2009. It was a historic moment for a boy given up by his mother and placed in foster care to become the first African-American district attorney in the state of Pennsylvania.
Since being sworn in as district attorney, Williams’ office has had to make some tough decisions, he said.
His office was among the first in the country to prosecute a member of the Catholic Church hierarchy — Monsignor William Lynn — for endangering the welfare of a child. Another high-profile decision was taking over an investigation that was dropped by state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, in which legislators who supported Williams for district attorney were named.
Earlier this year the district attorney’s office indicted state Reps. Ron Waters, Vanessa Lowery Brown, Michelle Brownlee, Louise Williams Bishop and former traffic court judge Thomasine Tynes. It was not something that gave him any pleasure to do, he said.
“Kane chose not to prosecute the sting case,” he said. “The perception that people believe is that all politicians are on the take. Everyone deserves due process. So what did I do? I empaneled a grand jury to investigate the allegations to see if there was enough evidence to move to prosecute. I’m guided by trying to seek and pursue justice. The one thing I can’t be ... indecisive.
“I’ve known Louise Williams Bishop since I was like 4 years old,” Williams added. “I take no pleasure in having to prosecute people who I consider friends. But at the same time I can’t turn my head when the law is broken. I can’t do it for a friend or because we’re the same race. If the law is broken I still have to do the job the people of this city elected me to do.”
Williams said being the city’s top prosecutor is not always about putting people in prison. Very often it’s about offering a second chance in diversionary programs, rather than sending them to prison.
“I understand what it means to have a second chance because I was given a second chance,” Williams said. “I was given up for adoption at birth. I didn’t know my biological parents. I lived in an orphanage and two foster homes.
“What made the difference in my life was being adopted by Rufus and Imelda Williams. My dad was a teacher and worked in recreation centers. Every summer he ran a day camp in Fairmount Park. His life was committed to children. I felt as though I had to be part of the solution.”
Rufus O. Williams was an art teacher at West Philadelphia’s Sulzberger Junior High School and his wife, Imelda, a secretary at the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard. They lived in the Cobbs Creek section of Philadelphia. He was their only child. His father passed away in 2001.
“My dad was very active in the community,” Williams said. “He made it a point to instill in me that if I’m not part of the solution I forfeit my right to complain.”
After graduating from Central High School in 1985, Williams completed undergraduate work at Pennsylvania State University and went on to Georgetown University law school in Washington, D.C. He graduated with distinction in 1992, then returned to Philadelphia to serve as an assistant district attorney for 10 years.
In 2005, Mayor John Street appointed him inspector general of the city. He was responsible for the investigation of all allegations of corruption, fraud, waste, abuse and employee misconduct among municipal workers and companies doing business with the city.
But when it comes to being district attorney, Williams said it’s about being smart on crime, not just about prosecuting criminals.
“Last year we disposed of nearly 6,200 cases through diversionary programs like The Choice is Yours,” Williams said. The Choice is Yours is an alternative-to-incarceration program designed to create a new and more effective model to reduce repeat criminal activity and recidivism.
In 2009, before he became district attorney, the felony conviction rate was around 43 percent. In 2014, it rose to 61 percent. Violation of the Uniform Firearms Act rose from 53 percent to 64 percent. Robbery convictions went from 28 percent in 2009 to 51 percent in 2014 along with attempted murder and aggravated assault convictions, rising from 34 percent to 42 percent.
The rate of homicide convictions rose from 79 percent in 2009 to 90 percent in 2014.
But Williams said the biggest deterrence to crime isn’t a crackerjack DA or innovative policing. It’s preventing a criminal from becoming a criminal.
“When I speak at different public schools I always ask the students, ‘What is a common element for many suspects who murdered police officers,’” he said. “No one ever guesses the right answer. It’s that many were high school drop outs.”