by Larry Miller
For New Pittsburgh Courier
PHILADELPHIA (NNPA)—Seth Williams has been sworn in as the city’s new district attorney, taking over the office of Philadelphia’s chief prosecutor from fellow Democrat Lynne Abraham.
Williams, 42, is the city’s youngest district attorney ever elected. He is also the first African-American elected to that position in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson administered the oath of office to Williams Jan. 4 during a ceremony at the Kimmel Center. Williams succeeds Abraham, who has held the office since 1991—the longest serving district attorney. Williams served under Abraham as an assistant district attorney for 10 years.
Williams said by taking the office of one of the city’s chief law enforcement officials, he represents a fundamental change in what it means to be a prosecutor in Philadelphia.
“The history of the DA’s office in Philadelphia is one of excellence,” Williams said. “The words a ‘New Day, A New DA’ is not just a slogan or a catch phrase, but represents a paradigm change —a new definition of what it means to be a prosecutor because justice without mercy is evil. We will streamline, modernize and reform our system of justice. We will also be smarter on crime instead of just talking tough. But understand that getting smarter on crime doesn’t mean being soft on criminals.”
According to Williams and Mayor Michael Nutter, even though the number of homicides in the city has dropped by about 23 percent, violent crime is a major problem, especially in the Black community where the No. 1 cause of death for African-American males is death by illegal handguns.
“Victims and perpetrators too often have a history of prior arrests and convictions and the number one cause of death for Black males age 20 to 44 is death by handguns,” Nutter said. “Month after month, families are ripped apart by the bloody slaughter but that three Black men—Commissioner Charles Ramsey, District Attorney Seth Williams and myself—have to come to grips with that Black genocide.”
Much of the violence in the Black community that Nutter and Williams spoke about is fueled by the possession of illegal firearms.
Nutter said that over the last three years, a total of 732 Black men were murdered. Nutter also said that other factors that fuel the bloodshed are truancy and low and under-employment.
“We need to break the cycle of recidivism,” he said. “I visited the city’s six prisons on New Year’s Day and was appalled by the number of Black, Hispanic and Asian men behind bars and the wasted talent it represents. We can do much better than that.”
Williams said he plans to use the latest technology, weapons and influence of the district attorney’s office to thin the ranks of young African-American men entering the justice system. Part of that includes what Williams refers to as community-based prosecution; in which the personnel of the office are assigned geographically.
That way, Williams has said, it will reduce the number of cases that are routinely dismissed because assistant district attorneys aren’t ready to prosecute.
He also said that the district attorney’s office would continue its efforts to dismantle those organizations that funnel illegal guns onto the streets. Part of that includes expanding the Gun Violence Task Force, which was started in 2006.
Since its beginning, the task force has opened 1,207 investigations, arrested 395 suspects, seized more than 700 firearms and convicted 157 defendants.
“Criminals are already using the latest weapons and technology. We have to stop playing catch up and catch up and catch them,” Williams said. “Being smart on crime means we have to do three things: We have to maintain a relentless and intense focus on violence and the prosecution of violent offenders. Second, we have to identify the key points in the lives of young offenders and stop them from escalating and continuing the criminal behavior. Third, we have to provide the highest level of support for the victims and witnesses of crime and in the process, foster crime prevention. Prevention is just as important and prosecution.”
A major problem facing Williams’ first term as district attorney is the issue of witness intimidation.
In Philadelphia law enforcement, officials have often complained that although violent offenders are constantly arrested and re-arrested, many cases get thrown out of court because witnesses refuse to testify out of fear.
During Abraham’s almost 20 years as district attorney, she constantly lobbied City Council for additional funding for witness relocation and protection. Williams said intimidation of witnesses would be vigorously prosecuted.
“Despite the best intentions of the men and women who serve the justice system in the city, the fact is that we lead the nation in violent crime and homicide by handguns,” Williams said. “We have difficult challenges but they’re not insurmountable. We can make Philadelphia the safest big city in America.”
(Special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune.)