Seth Williams
District Attorney's Office

Seth Williams says Philly isn’t Ferguson: “I’m not afraid of charging people if the evidence is there” (Q&A)

District Attorney has always been a high profile position in Philadelphia, and that’s particularly been the case for Seth Williams. He’s charged public officials who were part of a sting operation dropped by Attorney General Kathleen Kane, challenged the governor’s death penalty moratorium and last Thursday announced his office would not press charges against the officers who shot and killed Brandon Tate-Brown in December in Northeast Philly.

Protesters followed the announcement that night by kicking over chairs and fighting at a Lawncrest community meeting. Gauging that reaction to that decision, Williams says he wants fewer people “yelling through their bullhorns” and more finding solutions. The next day, Williams sat down with Billy Penn to discuss the Tate-Brown shooting and people’s reactions, his opposition to Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium, his surprising choice for a dream job and more. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

Q: With the Tate-Brown shooting, as well as other controversial officer shootings around the country in which no charges have been filed, the criminal justice system has been accused of racism. How can you as a public official involved with the law reassure the black community they are getting a fair shake?  

There are so many layers to that … All of us can agree that American history and the history of the criminal justice system in America are full of stories of racism. That goes without saying. And I think part of the reason why I wanted to go to law school, part of the reason why I wanted to be an assistant district attorney was so I could do my part to make sure that the system was as fair as possible for those accused of criminal acts but also to be a champion for victims. 

Now, a lot of people want to yell out of their bullhorns (and) don’t want to take the time to analyze those things. It’s really easy just to lash out, and I understand that. But what society really needs are thoughtful people that are trying to work and trying to find solutions, not just yelling through their bullhorns. I understand what happened with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and what happened in Ferguson. But what happened here in Philadelphia I would hope the citizens would understand is different. This isn’t a situation of just some unarmed person being shot because they were black. Two police officers stopped someone who was driving a car without headlights on at 2:45 in the morning. Subsequent to them going to the door, to the window, a police officer sees that there’s a gun jammed between the console and the front seat. There’s a big struggle between the police officers and Brandon Tate Brown, and ultimately the police officer shot him as he was attempting to go back into the car to get a gun. It’s a different story. The gun was tested and the DNA matched. It wasn’t like it was some random car he rented or borrowed. He put the gun there. It had his DNA on it. He kept trying to go get that gun.

So again my heart goes out to his mother. As a parent I can’t fathom the grief that she is enduring right now. What happened was a tragedy. But my job isn’t to say, ‘well it was emotional; we’ve got to do something. No. My job as the D.A. — I am bound by the law and apply the law to the facts that we have. And in this situation I would’ve had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the police officer’s belief that he had to use that force was unreasonable based on what he knew at that time. That’s something we couldn’t do.

But we tried to do something different than they did in Ferguson or Staten Island. We brought the community in. The police commissioner had members of the clergy and community to his office and look at this stuff — the files, the tapes. And we did the same thing here. 

I want the public to know that everything I do here we’re applying the same standard of justice to everyone. We’ve charged 52 police officers with excessive force or corruption since I’ve been DA, the special investigations unit alone. Fifty-two. That doesn’t include the police officers we’ve charged for domestic violence cases. I’m not afraid of charging people if the evidence is there. It’s also, maybe, more important to exonerate people who deserve exoneration. But these people that are all upset that say, ‘black lives matter.’ Of course I believe that. I believe every life matters. But the unvarnished truth that they may not want to talk about it is about 80 percent of homicides of young black men are those killed by other black men. And nobody wants to talk about that. People aren’t shouting and screaming about that.

Were you disappointed then about the reaction at the community meeting from last Thursday?

I was. But ignorance never surprises me. And their behavior was ignorant. The police commissioner got up and they started screaming at him shame on you. So it’s very sad that there are more than 100 people from that neighborhood, Lawncrest, that actually came out to talk about how we could improve relations between the police and the community, and solve some of the problems they addressed with public safety. That’s why I was there. But it got pretty ugly really quick by people who didn’t want to listen. And that’s sad. Because again you’ve got the screaming lunatics in some ways. We need more people to be about solutions.

Are you going to work with police to release video of the incident?

There’s no reason for me to do it.

You filed a petition against Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium. Why is that such a strong issue for you to the point where you would want to challenge the governor?

Because the first case that it affected is a case where a jury of Philadelphians convicted Terrance Williams of the brutal beating death of Amos Norwood. The governor did that a week before or 10 days before the March 4 date that Terrance Williams was supposed to be executed. Again, it’s my job to follow the law. I can’t decide today to follow Hammurabi’s Code. Well, the governor can’t do what he did. It’s unconstitutional. There’s no provision in the state law that allows a governor to just blanket grant everyone on Death Row a reprieve. It has to be on a case-by-case basis where a defendant alleges new evidence or some facts, and the (Board of Pardons) has to vote unanimously to grant the reprieve and the reprieve is only for a set period of time. Not open-ended. So if people want to say that the criminal justice system or the death penalty is applied in a racist way then OK, let’s have that discussion. But at the same time it has to be on a case-by-case basis.

So why did I have to do this? I had to do this because it affected Terrance Williams first. And I was standing up and defending the words of the grand jury and the work of the district attorney’s office. That’s why I had to do it.

You were an activist when you were younger. Have your views on the death penalty changed?

For the most part. I’m Catholic, and the Catholic Church is opposed to the death penalty. I went to Quaker school and they’re opposed to it. But people didn’t hire me because I’m a Catholic or because I like some of the things that (George) Fox said a long time ago. They asked me to fairly review facts and apply the law. So at different periods of my life I’ve felt differently about the death penalty.

You’re on the death penalty task force. How is that going and when do you anticipate the group to finally release something?

I don’t have high hopes for the task force because of who was selected. There’s an imbalance as I see it between law enforcement and people who are just anti-death penalty. I don’t necessarily think it’s a fair and balanced review.

With the death penalty moratorium, you’re going against the governor – it’s obviously something that he wanted…

If the Governor was a  man of his convictions, though, he would try to persuade the state representatives and state senators to change the law. That’s fine. The state legislature creates the criminal laws and their penalties. Not the Governor. The judiciary decides what is sufficient evidence and what is constitutional. Not the Governor. In 1995 the general assembly had a special session on criminal law and they took away from the governor the ability to just pardon people unilaterally. People don’t understand that. They think the governor is against racism and is trying to end the death penalty, and the DA is fighting him, so the DA must be in favor of racism. No. That’s not what’s going on here. The Governor acted illegally.

So I was going to ask, with going against the Governor, do you ever worry about not having enough political allies at the state level?

I just try to do what’s right every day. Whatever the decision is in that moment. I don’t have some big five-year arching plan that I need to make this decision, do this thing. A lot of what we do is reactionary with what’s happening. I didn’t know the Governor was going to do that. I didn’t think I’d be taking over this big sting investigation because Kathleen Kane deep-sixed it for reasons known only between her and God. You have to do the right thing. And the right thing based not the evidence that I had and what transpired with Terrance Williams was to say that what the Governor did was unconstitutional. And that’s all. The check on my use is the public. Get rid of me. I’m not beholden to the Governor. The governor has nothing to do with my budget, nothing to do with what we do on a daily basis here. I believe I probably agree with him on 98 percent of everything else. I look forward to working with him on most things. It’s just this one thing.

Let’s say you’ve worked as DA for several years and you’re satisfied with what you’ve done, what would your career goal?

I’d love to be president of Penn State University.

Really?

Uh huh.

Are you running for board of trustees again?

Oh no. No. Not this year

Why the president of Penn State?

Well my father went to Penn State. He was one of just 12 black students at Penn State. They were all black men, all black athletes. They couldn’t live on campus. Despite all that I grew up loving Penn State. I went to Penn State. What I found that’s really neat there is the Morrill Act of 1862, which made Penn State a land grant institution. It was created to provide a quality affordable education to the sons and daughters of the working class. So if we’re think about the American dream and the next generation doing better than the current generation then a fundamental piece of that would be education. Penn State was founded just for that mission. Not to be like a little boutique, Swarthmore nice college. Like Lafayette or Bucknell. It was supposed to be like a Sears and Roebuck so the sons and daughters of the working class could send their kids there and the next generation could do better.

Just for a lot of reasons in my opinion, it would be really cool. You could affect a lot of education opportunity a lot of economic opportunity.

Any other political goals?

So to self-actualize I wanted to become and needed to become district attorney. And I won that election when I was 42. I became the DA when I was 43. So anything else would be cool, maybe, might be nice. But I don’t feel like there’s a burning desire that I have to do something else or my life will have been unsuccessful. But you know if the time comes and I feel like I can help in a different way I’ll consider it.

If I had to do it over again I’d probably be a high school history teacher and coach the football team in the fall. That’d be fun. I could wear sweats all day.

What was Philadelphia like when you moved back here after Georgetown Law School in the 90s and where did you live?

When I graduated law school I moved back into my parent’s house, the same house I grew up in as a kid. Cobbs Creek. That was my first time really being back since the mid 80s and (the damage from) the crack epidemic was clear. I was riding my bike from my parents house to the Cobbs Creek branch of the Philadelphia Library, and you saw a lot of prostitutes just walking around in the middle of the day. The crack epidemic from the mid-80s until the early-90s just really changde my neighborhood a lot and not for the better.

Is an area like Cobbs Creek now better than it was 20 years ago?

I would say a lot of things about Philadelphia are a lot better than in the mid 80s. The crime rate is a lot better. The park is a lot cleaner. You have a lot less garbage, fewer bags and debris. You have a lot less Volkswagens in the middle of Cobbs Creek. I was taking a photography class in 1984, my senior year of high school. There was a big Volkswagen in the middle of the creek.

Like a Volkswagen van?

Volkswagen Beetle. That and the El, the MFL, they totally renovated and restructured it from Market Street all the way out to West Philadelphia. It’s much cleaner. So in many ways the city is much cleaner and much safer than it was then.

What are three things you think Philadelphia could do to keep some of the young people who have moved here in recent years?

The three most important things to almost every segment, every demographic, are public safety, education and economic opportunity. Depending upon your age you might reorder those three things. 

I was an Aspen Rodel fellow and was at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Somebody mentioned how Philadelphia has the greatest opportunities for green economy jobs. And if that is true it’s because of the rivers that we have here. The water system totally needs to be redone with the pipes and stuff, but there’s an opportunity for a green economy in Philadelphia that I wasn’t even aware of. One of the things I think is a terrible waste is our waterfront.

The Delaware?

Yes. And even along the Schuylkill, as it goes through Center City and along University City and Penn out there. If you go to Baltimore and you look at their inner harbor, even Chicago what they do there. I was in the U.S. Army reserves and for about two months every year I would go to Gaithersburg, Md. They’ve got this beautiful development with malls, hotels, condos, movie theaters, high end boutique stores, Old Navy, the whole range. They’ve got a manmade lake where you can rent paddle boats and take paddle boats out. In Gaithersburg, Md., it’s much nicer than what we have in Philadelphia. And we can’t get people to sit down at the table in 30 years and figure out what we can do at the riverfront.

How much has social media changed the way you do investigations and your job?

We definitely use social media in criminal cases. It dramatically helps us. You’ll have a defendant in the courtroom wearing his Sunday best suit and saying the best things and you’re able to pull up the Facebook page from the Taney and Dickinson, the TND Murder Crew, a picture of them all with their matching t-shirts and showing tattoos, pointing guns, all this stuff that you wouldn’t think this kid wearing this three-piece suit wants anything to do with. Or we’ll show conspiracy, that these people are connected. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Some of these young assistant D.A.’s have found this treasure trove of information. It’s just an amazing tool.

I also use it as a way to try and share information. Every now and then I’ll have a crime prevention tip. Something like 50 percent of the cars that are stolen in Philadelphia happen because the owner left the keys in the ignition. So once a week I’ll take a picture of where somebody left the key in the ignition and went inside and got a coffee. I’ll walk in. ‘Who’s got the Blue Honda?’ I’ll say, ‘look I’m the DA.’ This is across City Avenue so I know right now we’re in MontCo, so this is Risa Fermin’s County, not mine. But dude. What are you doing? Why are you doing this?

Are you going to endorse anyone for mayor?

I came out in support a long time ago for Anthony Williams. I was an intern in his office when he became state representative. He came to me more than a year and a half ago asking me not to run and to support him. And so that’s what I did.

I will say also that Jim Kenny is a great guy and Jim Kenney I think also would be a great mayor. I have nothing but great things to say about Jim. It’s just that Tony asked me a long time ago, and I decided I wouldn’t run and would support him. Because if I did run, I would’ve won but then I would have to be mayor for four years. And right now I have a daughter that’s 11 and a daughter that’s 15 and the job I have now is like 2.5 full time jobs. It’s bad enough now. 

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