By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Seth Williams will not run for reelection as Philadelphia’s District Attorney. Today, from a press conference report in The Inquirer, some remarkable statements: “‘I have made regrettable mistakes in my personal life and personal financial life that cast an unnecessary shadow’ over the work of the District Attorney’s Office, Williams said Friday. He said his decisions to accept gift and not report them brought ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ to the office. ‘For this, I will always hold deep regret in my heart,’ Williams said. He has previously said that friends helped him during a rough financial period during and after his divorce, and has stressed that he took no official action in return for the gifts.”
R. Seth Williams was sworn in as Philly’s DA in January 2010, and was re-elected in 2014. Williams has been in hot water since at least August, when he admitted in financial disclosures that he’d taken $160,500 in undisclosed gifts — some of which came from defense attorneys in cases he was prosecuting. The gifts included $45,000 in home repairs, as well as sideline passes to Eagles games, vacation gifts, cash, and gift cards. The FBI probed the gifts, and continues to probe similar financial questions surrounding his nonprofit organization. Williams settled with the Ethics Board to pay a $62,000 fine, but the gifts have continued to plague him.
So has his record. While Philly media have understandably focused on Williams’ ethical violations in recent months, his term as DA has incited derision, particularly from those who expected Williams to bring progressive reforms to a DA’s office that has historically and notoriously been “tough on crime” — and even deadly.
After running on a platform of eliminating the death penalty in Philadelphia, for instance, Williams changed course and sued Governor Tom Wolf after the commonwealth’s chief executive initiated a death penalty moratorium. That’s just one example of Williams’ questionable actions. His office also offered a boilerplate re-sentencing option for men and women serving juvenile life without parole sentences that inspired a federal judge to lash out and accuse Williams of bringing “a lack of due diligence” to an important issue that affected hundreds of prisoners. Williams also refused, for three years, to drop the murder case of a man who had been exonerated by DNA evidence, and it took a jury to eventually set that man free. Williams has overseen headline-making and blatantly unfair civil forfeiturepractices; failed to take potential wrongful conviction cases seriously; and even failed to dismiss prosecutors wrapped up in the so-called “porngate” scandal.
Williams may, in the future, argue that his financial dealings brought about the end of his run as DA. But finances weren’t the only aspect of his tenure that was disconcerting. His judgement was, too.
ALSO MAKING HEADLINES
This week, HB 27, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. This bill prohibits public agencies from identifying a police officer who has discharged his firearm or used force for 30 days after the incident. It also threatens criminal charges for any official who violates this gag order. There was no press about the bill this week, and ACLU-PA did not issue a public statement. But we did issue a memo to the House Judiciary Committee. It reads, in part: “Unfortunately, the supporters of HB 27 fail to recognize or to respect the very real concerns raised by communities concerned about unfairness in policing. Our police officers are public employees with a great deal of power, including the power to use force. This power must be coupled with the responsibility to be transparent and accountable to the public.”
Read the entire memo here.
And one more thing before we get to this week’s links…
The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held yesterday that those whose death sentences are overturned can no longer be held in solitary. The case was argued by Harrisburg and Pittsburgh-based attorneys, involves Pa. Department of Corrections practices, and involves two Pennsylvania plaintiffs who “had their death sentences vacated but were nevertheless detained in solitary confinement.”
Read the opinion here.
IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)
- From The Morning Call: “To some municipalities, Wolf’s proposed state police fee sounds like a bargain”
“The governor’s fee for the township’s 31,432 residents would equate to $785,800. That’s still far below the $4 million to $5 million experts estimated in 2012 would be needed to start and maintain a police department. Neighboring Upper Macungie Township’s relatively new police force took up $4.2 million of its overall budget in 2016.” And related, from The Tribune-Review in September: “Money from increased fees and gas taxes that drivers have been paying since 2013 on the promise to fix Pennsylvania’s crumbling roads and bridges is increasingly being diverted to support the state police, budget figures show. Many government officials, legislators and construction industry members said the practice needs to stop, especially as the nation’s highest gas tax — ushered in by the 2013 transportation funding overhaul known as Act 89 — generates billions in new revenue for roads.”
- From ACLU-PA: “State Senate Bill Will Force Counties to Violate the Constitution”
“This legislation creates a no-win situation for counties and cities that want to welcome immigrants and that know they have obligations under the constitution,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “If this bill becomes law, people will be held in jail when they should not be held. We are prepared to challenge illegal detentions when they occur.”
- From ACLU National: “Flying Home From Abroad, a Border Agent Stopped and Questioned Me … About My Work for the ACLU”
“It didn’t happen during the Bush years when I traveled to meet with and represent Afghan and Iraqi survivors of U.S. military torture, to Guantanamo as an observer at the military commissions there, or to attend meetings and give talks abroad about U.S. human rights abuses in the national security context. It didn’t happen during the Obama years when my work included challenges to unlawful targeted killing, anti-Muslim discrimination, unfair watchlisting, illegal spying, and other U.S. government abuses at home and abroad. Over all those years, government officials made their views known about this work — often in opposition, sometimes in support. But no government agent ever asked the chilling question I was asked this time: Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?”
- From The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: “State of Washington, State of Minnesota v. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States, et al”
“The Government indeed asserts that it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one. There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy.”
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