Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Rufus Seth Williams, the first African-American in Pennsylvania to hold a powerful top prosecutor post, persistently projects himself as an expert on racism.
Commendably Williams has acknowledged the corrosive impact of racism within the criminal justice system.
Curiously though, when Williams usually asserts his professed expertise on racism he is defending improprieties by police and prosecutors.
Williams, for example, indignantly rejects all allegations of race-related improprieties in the controversial conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal, arguably the most racism-stained murder case in the 300-plus-year history of Philadelphia.
Earlier this year Williams participated in the ‘political lynching’ of an Obama Administration nominee to head the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. During that assault on nominee Debo Adegible, a former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer, DA Williams allied himself with Philadelphia’s police union, an organization with a sordid record of supporting racism within police department ranks and vicious brutality by police officers.
Recently, Williams attacked Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, blasting the fellow Democrat for her comments about racism.
Williams castigated Kane’s contention that racial profiling helped taint a political corruption probe she cancelled. “I am offended,” Williams wrote in a caustic commentary published in the Philadelphia Inquirer assailing Kane’s accusations that racism played a role in that legally flawed probe. “I have seen racism. I know what it looks like. This isn’t it,” Williams declared in that commentary where he defended the former AG Office staffer who ran that flawed probe, a prosecutor who now works for Williams.
Critics of Williams contend his posturing on racism evidences he is clueless about the parameters of racism and/or he callously utilizes is position as a black District Attorney to provide cover for racism.
“Clueless or callous…I don’t know what is worse,” Philadelphia attorney Michael Coard said. Once an avid supporter of Williams, Coard turned adamant opponent due to Williams’ perverse practices on police brutality, the death penalty and other injustices.
“We expected a new day when Williams was elected but what we’ve gotten is the same old night of abuses,” Coard said, referencing the campaign slogan Williams used when he successfully ran for DA in 2009 – “A New Day, A New DA.”
That corruption probe at the core of Williams’ attacks on AG Kane was flagged as flawed by the Pa AG’s Office plus county and federal prosecutors before Kane took office in January 2013. Various law enforcement officials who reviewed that corruption sting found flaws in its operation including its exclusive focus on four black state representatives from Philadelphia, according to news accounts. Experts cited issues of entrapment and questioned the unusual step by those operating the sting to dismiss 2,088 criminal counts against the informant that facilitated the sting for that informant’s role in a $400,000 fraud involving government funds.
“Why does Williams blame Kane for not prosecuting when he is not prosecuting for police brutality?” attorney Coard said, listing a series of police abuse cases that Williams fumbled or failed to prosecute.
Williams blasted AG Kane for not prosecuting those caught in the sting citing audio recordings of those legislators taking payoffs. But Williams, Coard noted, has failed to prosecute police abuses captured on video. Two of the cases listed by Coard involved 2012 incidents captured on video – a teen violently pummeled by police and a police lieutenant who bashed a woman.
One of those 2012 incidents involved five policemen battering 18-year-old Marcus Warryington for running a red light. Williams charged teen but not the officers. The other 2012 incident involved Police Lt Jonathan Josey punching Aida Guzman, knocking Guzman down at a Puerto Rican Day parade. Coard faulted Williams for filing a simple assault charge against Josey when the video evidence warranted a more serious aggravated assault charge. Further, Coard faulted Williams for failing to seek recusal of the judge assigned to the Josey case since that jurist was married to a policewoman. Judge Patrick Dugan acquitted Josey, after a trial where his wife joined other officers packing Dugan’s courtroom supporting Josey.
A favored tactic of DA Williams to assail his opponents is writing commentaries in newspapers, like he did against AG Kane over that corruption probe. Williams utilized that commentary tactic in 2012 to defend a death penalty conviction tainted by prosecutorial misconduct 24-years before Williams took office. A Philadelphia prosecutor had withheld evidence that the murder victim had repeatedly raped the then teen defendant. Compounding the misconduct during that 1986 murder trial, prosecutors working for Williams committed misconduct by falsely telling the Pa Board of Pardons in 2012 that the DA’s Office did not make any plea deals during that ’86 trial.
“I can rarely remember an instance where a district attorney fought so willfully for so long for the right to do an injustice,” Andrew Cohen, of “The Atlantic,” wrote in 2012 article about Williams’ efforts to execute that sexually abused killer. The death sentence of that inmate was converted to life in prison due to the prosecutorial misconduct.
And, earlier this year, Williams seized on commentary writing to assail Debo Adegbile. Williams co-authored an attack article with Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Tea Party Republican, in the Rupert Murdoch owned Wall Street Journal. That co-authored commentary bashed Adegbile as a “man with impressive credentials but an unconscionable record in the Abu-Jamal case.” The commentary advanced a guilt by association argument against Adegbile.
The NAACP-LDF did provide late-stage representation in Abu-Jamal’s federal appeals but Adegbile was only remotely involved in the LDF’s attack on prosecutorial misconduct in the Abu-Jamal case. The LDF’s appeal centered on racially discriminatory jury selection practices employed by the Philadelphia prosecutor at Abu-Jamal’s 1982 trial. That Williams/Toomey commentary harpooned the LDF for “actively [fanning] the racial firestorm” initiated by Abu-Jamal to falsely paint him “as the unjustly accused victim of a racist conspiracy.”
Does Seth Williams, the proclaimed expert on racism, really have little knowledge about the racist history of Philadelphia’s police union that spearheaded the assault on Adegbile? In 1968, one year after Williams’ birth, Philly’s police union ejected a black member because that retired police commander merely criticized police brutality. Also, in 1968, Philly’s police union endorsed the presidential candidacy of proud racist and former Alabama Governor, George Wallace.
When Wallace made an October 1968 campaign stop in Philadelphia, local police made Wallace feel “right at home” when police “wrestled and manhandled black and white protestors” outside the campaign venue, according to a contemporaneous news account. One protestor brutally attacked by Philadelphia police at that Wallace rally was a 14-year-old Mumia Abu-Jamal whose “face was a mass of bruises” days later when in court for false charges of assaulting police.
That Williams/Toomey article against Adegbile stated Abu-Jamal immediately “confessed” to killing Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner in December 1981. But that confession – consistently denied by Abu-Jamal – was not reported by two policemen until two months after Abu-Jamal’s arrest. Suspiciously, those two officers suddenly remembered hearing that confession when questioned during a police investigation into a complaint Abu-Jamal filed claiming police beat him during his arrest and while he was in a hospital emergency room, critically wounded by a gunshot from Faulkner.
“Seth Williams says he knows racism,” attorney Michael Coard said. “Yeah, he knows racism. It looks just like him: a black face on white racism.
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.