April 14, 2015
Seth Williams, Philly’s Frank Underwood, is a sad disappointment
(Progressive Philly Rising) In his attempt to make it to the U.S. Senate, Seth Williams is looking a lot like the devious Senator Frank Underwood from House of Cards,a man who will do anything and ruin anyone for higher political office. But there will be no positive outcome for him, if progressive voters are paying attention.
Some people are trying to portray the Philly district attorney as a courageous public servant who has stood up to leading Democrats in the state. For example, in a February 20 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Christine Flowers wrote that as “Philly’s top enforcer,” Williams stood up to a rogue Attorney General named Kathleen Kane on an ethics investigation of state legislators, and challenged executive overreach by calling Gov. Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium a “lawless act by the governor.” Flowers further argued that Williams, like death penalty proponents Ed Rendell and Williams’ predecessor Lynn Abraham, will not face any political consequences for his actions.
Williams reportedly has his sights on a U.S. Senate seat. But the progressives who put this D.A. into office have had it with him, mostly because he has thrown them under the bus, and has pretended as if they did not notice. Williams’ recent actions have cemented his fate, and he’s not going anywhere.
Mr. Williams ran for office under the slogan, “A New Day, A New D.A.” Positioning himself as a fresh, new black face and a radical departure from his predecessor, “America’s deadliest D.A.”—who placed so many black men behind bars and on death row as to make even a deep Southern prosecutor blush—Williams was the reformer who would tackle a broken justice system that doesn’t work, and make smarter use of our scarce resources. Further, he courted progressives with a constructive message that signaled a departure from a reliance on the death penalty, and the punitive policies of mass incarceration that have placed a multitude of the black, the brown and the poor behind bars.
Now in his second term in office as district attorney, Seth Williams has emerged as a grave disappointment to his supporters, in a city aching for leadership. In his quest for statewide office, the city’s first black D.A. has morphed into a conservative white Republican who will squander no opportunity to appear tough on black folks for political gain. Specifically, Williams has chosen to exploit black death row prisoners convicted in troublesome cases, including those involving prosecutorial misconduct and serious claims of innocence.
In 2013, federal judge Anita Brody issued a scathing opinion throwing out the murder conviction and death sentence for Jimmy Dennis, who was sentenced to death in Philly in 1992. According to Judge Brody, Dennis “was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit.” The prosecution did not disclose evidence indicating his innocence, including information implicating three other suspects, and the prosecution’s case was based “on scant evidence at best” and shaky eyewitness testimony.On March 4, Gov. Wolf issued a temporary reprieve for Terrance “Terry” Williams, who was to be executed on March 4. Terry Williams was sent to death row for allegedly killing one of two men who had sexually abused him. From the age of 6, Terry was a target of rape, beatings and neglect, and suffered from PTSD as a result. And yet, the jurors in his case never had access to this history, as prosecutors had withheld the evidence. The widow of the victim in the capital case, five of the jurors, and numerous former judges and prosecutors, law professors, child advocates, mental health professionals and religious leaders all sought a commutation of his death sentence. Meanwhile, D.A. Williams attacked Wolf’s decision to issue Terry Williams a reprieve, and has insisted the defendant received an appropriate sentence, and is one of those rare individuals deserving the death penalty.
Seth Williams said he was disappointed in the judge’s “acceptance of slanted factual allegations” and “a newly concocted alibi defense.” He appealed, and the federal appeals court overturned Brody’s decision.
Meanwhile, last February in the Wall Street Journal, Seth Williams co-authored an op-ed with Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) opposing the nomination of Debo Adegbile for assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Williams and his Tea Party colleague opposed the nomination of this preeminent lawyer for one reason, which was “Mr. Adegbile’s support for convicted Philadelphia cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.” Mumia, who was convicted in the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, received an unfair trial which was rife with prosecutorial misconduct, including the striking of black jurors, allegations of evidence tampering, witness intimidation, and a trial judge who said he would help the prosecution “fry the n****r.” Over the years, Mumia Abu-Jamal has served as political kryptonite and a whipping boy for the Philly establishment.
Finally, Williams decided to challenge—and attempt to embarrass—a popular new governor and the highest-ranking person in his party, who came to Harrisburg as a repudiation of his coldhearted predecessor, on a progressive platform that included a death penalty moratorium. It boggles the mind.
For a black man who promised a new day, and at a time when this city needs to move forward, this D.A.’s approach reflects the mentality of this city’s insular and reactionary old guard, of Frank Rizzo and the Fraternal Order of Police, with the demonization and criminalization of black men.
Seth Williams is by no means the first, nor the last politician to invoke the black boogeyman to score a new job. Climbing over the dead bodies of black men for political gain is a time-honored, bipartisan tradition. But this is precisely why there is so much disillusionment with politics. Frank Underwood gets ahead because he will say or do anything, or destroy anyone, without regard to any core conviction or philosophy other than self-aggrandizement.
I theorize that Williams believes his progressive local base will go nowhere, and his latest moves will help him curry favor with the conservative, law-and-order Pennsylvanians living in that wilderness area between Philly and Pittsburgh. Yet, there is no evidence that this scheme will work. In his apparent attempt to court the statewide reactionary white vote, which the eventual Republican-Tea Party candidate will win over in any case, senatorial candidate Williams will have alienated—and lost—his progressive base. And we don’t play that in Philly.