Philadelphia News & Search
Lynne Abraham, Philadelphia’s long-serving former district attorney , has been accused of a lot of things over the years — but never a lack of chutzpah.
Like the horror-movie villain who just keeps coming back, Abraham popped back up with a sudden jolt on the front page of both the Daily News and the Inquirer today — presenting herself as the moral conscience of the city by suing her disgraced, indicted successor, Seth Williams, in a bid to force him to resign immediately.
“He should do the right thing,” Abraham told my colleague David Gambacorta Monday night, “and allow the office to get out from under the cloud caused by his troubles, which will only continue.” The former DA’s lawsuit was joined by renowned attorney Richard Sprague, who is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life. [Note: The previous sentence was approved by a team of seven Daily News libel attorneys.] But let’s talk about Abraham for a minute.
The truth is that Abraham, the former Frank Rizzo acolyte who was DA from 1991 through the end of 2009, whiffed at numerous chances to “do the right thing” back in her day. And some people have paid with the best years of their lives. Just ask Anthony Wright.
In 2009 as Abraham’s tenure was winding down, Wright was pleading for a chance to use state-of-the-art DNA testing that he insisted would prove that — after spending what was then 18 years behind bars, and counting — he was actually innocent in the brutal 1991 murder of 77-year-old women in Nicetown.
As the New York Times reported that year, most DA’s offices would have allowed that kind of test, which could have exonerated Wright or proved conclusively that he’d done the killing. But Abraham’s office, which had prosecuted Wright in the early 1990s, fought the request to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, insisting it was a waste of time “because of the overwhelming evidence presented at trial, including his confession, four witnesses and clothing stained with the victims’ blood that the police said was found at Mr. Wright’s home.”
It was, of course, all bull…oney. It would take five more years until Wright got the DNA test that linked someone else, a neighborhood crack addict, to the murder, and even then the innocent man spent additional three years in prison (that moral outrage is on Williams, not Abraham) before a pointless re-trial at which a jury acquitted Wright in a matter of minutes.
Look, everybody makes mistakes, and Abraham and her underlings certainly tried a ton of cases in the 1990s and the 2000s. A lot of the people they tried were guilty. Yet the deeper you dive into Abraham’s record, the Wright case seems not so much an aberration but rather emblematic of an office that relied in too many big cases on questionable high-pressure police confessions and hardball witness coercion, that pursued the death penalty with draconian glee, and made Philly a mass incarceration capital of the world.
Last year, a report by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project lambasted Abraham as one of America’s “five deadliest DAs” who, collectively, have been responsible for one out of every seven people still on death row in America. It argues that the 108 death sentences won by Abraham — who branded herself famously as “One Tough Cookie” — are a grim example of “personality-driven capital sentencing.” A top assistant who tried many of those cases, the late Roger King, had plastered his wall with pictures from the capital cases he’d prosecuted, with a circle-slash around the face of suspects and “death” written on every one.
None of this is to say that Williams — who initially didn’t report an astounding $175,000-plus in gifts while DA, was just indicted by the feds on bribery and corruption charges, and whose law license is now suspended — shouldn’t resign immediately instead of collecting a fat paycheck to pay his legal fees. He surely should resign.
But it bothers me that Abraham is the one casting the stones from her massive all-glass castle. And that’s because it bothers me the way we define morality in our society — that while we’re in all in a tizzy about a Caribbean freebie and a cushy alleged sofa bribe, we still treat throwing innocent men and women behind bars as just some kind of collateral damage. Are we really that lazy when it comes to thinking about right and wrong?
I’m troubled that Williams took expensive vacations, cash and other gifts from a businessman who (unsuccessfully) asked for a favor, but I’m much more troubled by what’s revealed in Tom Lowenstein’s new book The Trials of Walter Ogrod, which makes a compelling case that a notorious Northeast Philly murder was “solved” with a sketchy so-called confession and a notoriously dishonest jailhouse snitch, sending Ogrod to death row under Abraham’s watch in 1996. (Echoing the Wright case, prosecutors continue to block Ogrod’s appeal for new DNA testing.)
It’s appalling that Williams, while he was the city’s top law-enforcement official, allegedly resorted to fraud to tap into his own mother’s nursing-home nest egg. But it’s also appalling that federal appeals judges ruled last year that Abraham’s DA’s office, along with the cops, withheld critical evidence that could freed a man who was convicted in a 1991 murder despite a lack of forensic evidence. And there are serious questions about other high-profile convictions from that era.
All of this matters — a lot — because Philadelphia voters are going to the polls next month in a Democratic primary that will be critical for picking Williams’ successor. Almost all of the candidates want to swing the pendulum away from the “convictions at any cost” culture that permeated the Abraham years, and surely no one want to bring back such zealous pursuit of the death penalty. That’s all good, but the raft of questionable convictions from the past presents a challenge for any future DA.
Last week, after I wrote about Lowenstein’s Ogrod book, one of those candidates — the civil rights lawyer Lawrence Krasner — issued a statement in which he said “it is clear that for decades the practice and policy of the District Attorney’s Office has been to win convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself.” He called for a number of concrete steps including the courtroom use of confessions only if they are videotaped, an end to the death penalty, and refusing to prosecute cases when the evidence developed by police is clearly lacking.
In addition, I’d argue that a highly aggressive effort must be launched by the new DA to re-examine all of the dubious conviction of the last three decades — much as police and prosecutors now continue to press “cold case” murders from that same era. The speedy resignation of Seth Williams would be a step toward cleaning up Philadelphia, but making sure there are no more Anthony Wrights would be a much bigger step. Seth Williams AND Lynne Abraham (and the Wonderful Mr. Sprague) need to cede the stage to a new generation, committed to a just Philadelphia.
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