Judge wants DA Seth Williams’ trial to start as soon as next month

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The federal judge overseeing Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams’ bribery and corruption case told prosecutors Tuesday that they should be ready to for trial as soon as next month.

In a sternly worded order, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond chided government lawyers for indicting the city’s top prosecutor before they had fully completed their investigation. He also expressed concern over Williams’ decision to remain in office, despite the suspension of his law license while he is fighting the charges against him.

“I am hard-pressed to think of a case where the public’s right to a speedy trial is more pressing than it is here,” the judge wrote. “The largest prosecutors’ office in the Commonwealth is being run by someone who is not licensed to practice law and is himself charged with 23 federal crimes.”

Should Williams’ trial begin by May 31, the date identified Tuesday by Diamond, it will have reached that point at an all but unheard of pace.

Though federal law requires criminal trials to commence within 70 days of an indictment being filed, judges routinely grant waivers to those deadlines, especially in complex, document-intensive public corruption cases.

Other Philadelphia elected officials indicted in recent high-profile corruption cases received several months to prepare for their trials – nearly a year for State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah.

Fumo’s successor in office, Larry Farnese, had nine months to marshal the defense that led to his acquittal in a federal fraud case this year.

Diamond, in his order, said he saw Williams’ case differently. Prosecutors have accused the district attorney in three schemes – two involving selling the influence of his office to wealthy backers that showered him with luxury gifts and a third involving allegations that he misspent $20,000 set aside for his mother’s nursing home care.

“This does not appear to be an especially complex case,” he wrote, adding later: “Having brought the charges that will, until they are resolved, have an obvious and possibly calamitous effect on the city’s criminal justice system as well as the city itself, the government is obligated to go to trial upon the indictment’s return.”

In court filings last week, prosecutors said they had not yet finished going through mountains of search warrant results, emails and other documents that agents collected during their two-year investigation – material that they are required to hand over to the district attorney’s defense before trial.

Already, they have delivered a hard drive packed with data, including 17 grand jury transcripts, 61 agent reports, audio from three conversations recorded by government cooperators and images caught by a camera investigators installed outside of Williams’ Overbook home.

Williams’ attorney, Thomas Burke, told the court at the time that he could not yet say whether he would be ready for trial by May 31 because he had not yet had a chance to begin reviewing that material.

In his order, Diamond left open the possibility that he might still grant a delay – but only at the request of Williams’ lawyer and to ensure the district attorney has adequate time to prepare a defense.

He ordered prosecutors to hand over a list of witnesses and exhibits by April 21.

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