Q&A with Seth Williams, former Philly DA

Seth Williams
Seth Williams, former district attorney of Philadelphia, talks past, present and future. | Image: Abad AxeRosa

When Seth Williams was district attorney, crime was down.

He is credited with bringing charges against the Catholic Church and exposing pedophile priests. He put away serial killer abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell for murdering infants after they were born and he succeeded in securing a conviction for the “Rittenhouse Rapist,” Milton Garcia.

Not long after, though, he found himself on the other side of the law. He spent three years behind bars after pleading guilty to bribery and admitted to two other charges against him, which included extortion and fraud.

Today, Williams is trying hard to redeem himself. 

During our interview, he did a lot of storytelling. He talked about his time in prison – and later, relationships he developed with inmates who inspired him. He talked a lot about God and lessons learned from the Bible. He talked a lot about charity and the work he has laid out in front of him. 

This is who Seth Williams says he is today. 

Video by Abad AxeRosa

Q: You claim to be a new man now. You spent almost three years behind bars and have been out of jail for a year. What did you learn from your time spent in prison?

A: My first five months, I was in solitary confinement. I was all alone in a 7 ft. by 12 ft. concrete and steel cell. I lost my reputation. I lost my elected office. I lost my pensions. I lost my military career. I lost my law license. I lost my house, my liberty – most importantly, time with my daughters and loved ones and family and friends. But what I really learned from that is when God was all I had, God was all I needed. And it was just an amazing journey. I tell folks that I lost so much, but in hindsight, I really gained a lot – as crazy as that might seem.

So this began a very spiritual journey being alone. Don’t get me wrong – it’s very difficult and challenging. The United Nations, Amnesty International, the Obama Department of Justice all say that any more than 10 days of solitary confinement is deleterious to your mental health. But I developed friendships – screaming through the wall and under the door and through the plumbing vents with inmates in adjacent cells. And so, I really began to learn a lot about myself… 

Q: Some have a jaded perception of you because of the crimes you committed while in higher office. What do you have to say to the people who elected you who depended on you to uphold the law? Do you feel like you let them down?

A: I believe I hurt no one more than I hurt my daughters. I can never apologize to them enough and it will be the rest of my life trying to rebuild my relationship with them for all that they lost. I’m very grateful that Philadelphia made me their district attorney – the very first African-American district attorney in the Commonwealth’s history. So, to all the people I did let down, I can only say that I’m sorry and I ask for their forgiveness. To the people that I did help, I wish I could have helped more. To the people that I couldn’t help, I wish I could have done something, and for all the people who were supportive of me, I can’t thank them enough. 

But I also realize that a lot of people had great expectations for me. I would only say that God is not finished with me yet and I think I’m going to be doing even better things – just different things.

Q: On that note – you’re a very spiritual man. You wrote a book. Tell me how your spirituality and your relationship with God has changed your life.

A: Well, I was raised Catholic, and despite going to church three Sundays out of the month, I never read the Bible…until I was alone in solitary confinement. As a young, Catholic boy, I always wanted God to talk to me. I thought that meant that a cloud would come in my window with an angel playing a harp and he or should would talk to me. And while I was away, I learned that God does speak to us almost every day, but are we listening? He speaks to us through other people and through situations or through the beauty of nature. And so, I began having daily inspirations…

I found myself teaching. Well, I went into the belly of the beast, lived in a prison. I began to see the criminal justice system from a different perspective. I think I have a unique perspective now on the criminal justice system. I began to see the people in the criminal justice system as more than just files and numbers and cases, but as three-dimensional people.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about our current D.A., Larry Krasner, and his approach to prosecuting crimes. I read an interview with NBC10 wherein you felt that locking people up wasn’t necessarily the best answer to preventing crime. What do you mean by that? Serious crimes don’t deserve serious penalties? What’s your alternative?

A: I began to believe we needed to be smart on crime as an assistant district attorney, but I never really thought about criminology. I was an assistant district attorney. I thought I was doing a good job every day trying to bring justice for the victims and the defendants…I tried to reform the criminal justice system as much I could when I ran for district attorney the first time…We had to have partnerships between the D.A.’s office, police, clergy, faith-based organizations, community-based organizations working together. And I had a great partnership with Commissioner Ramsey. We created GunStat, we created focused-deterrence. We saw the homicide rate go from the highs in the 60s and 70s and 80s go to all-time lows in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Now, it’s astronomically high, again.

Q: The highest it’s ever been.

A: They got rid of community-based prosecution, they got rid of focused-deterrence.

I don’t want to get into any kind of name-calling with the current district attorney, but I think it is a false choice for us to believe we have to either reform the broken criminal justice system all its systemic racism or classism and how it’s difficult or poor people of any color – white, Black, Brown – it’s a false choice between reforming the criminal justice system and ensuring public safety. No! We have to do both. 

What do I mean? We can’t incarcerate our way out of crime. We have to address the root causes. We have to hold people accountable that do break the law…We have to address the criminogenic needs. What do different people need that do get arrested? Are they getting that currently in prison? No. So, I learned more about that. If we’re talking about gun violence, and I’m still an outspoken advocate of doing all that we can to reduce gun violence. And what I say – everywhere I have an opportunity is that we have a holistic approach. So, what does that mean? Well, it’s not just fancy words. It means that, OK, if eight out of 10 men that were in prison with me recognize that they had some sort of mental health problem, then we need to have some sort of early intervention of mental health, we have to provide mental health treatment early on in community-based settings, and we just can’t wait for people to act out, get arrested and then provide them with mental health treatment…

Q: Let me ask you about this. Who are you supporting in the D.A’s race between Larry Krasner, Carlos Vega or Chuck Peruto?

A: I know all three of them. I don’t know if me saying one thing or the other hurts or helps anyone. I do know that it’s a false choice to think that we can only reform the criminal justice system. I find it ironic now that despite the fact that I have a felony conviction, captains of various police districts contact me and meet with me to ask me my ideas about what they can do to reduce gun violence because they don’t feel they currently have a partnership. 

Now, the district attorney has to hold police officers accountable who do bad things. There are many more good police officers, of course…But by addressing the root causes of why people are committing crimes, especially non-violent crimes, by handling them differently, we can have better outcomes. Now, people who are significantly violent, who hurt people, yeah, we have to have time-outs for those individuals. 

Q: Time-outs? There needs to be harsh penalties for criminals, especially repeat criminals? (i.e. rape, or murder) Don’t you agree?

A: Well, I agree. I think we have to conclude that we need experts who help us determine what are the best ways to help us prevent crime and what are the best ways to help us address those that have committed crime. 

What do I mean by that? We just can’t have people who are elected state representatives and state senators responding to the political whims of how the wind is blowing that day. We should really look at people who have advanced degrees in criminology – a person who has committed a specific crime – what are the criminogenic needs? Do they need a GED? Do they need life skills training? Job skills training? What does this person need not to re-commit that crime? 

So, if we’re going to commit to what the science tells us, then we need to be all-in on that. What I saw when I was away – the super-majority of the men I saw when I was in prison with me – that had been drug dealers, for example, were very intelligent, good at math, good salesmen – but people want to be a part of a team. What choice did they get? Was it [between] the Blood and the Crips?…The majority of the guys I was with, and I taught GED, and I probably learned more from them than they taught me – so I learned more humility, and to listen – they never had problems getting jobs. They had jobs. They had problems keeping jobs. They didn’t have the workforce readiness skills. Show up on time. Conflict resolution. This is why we have to talk about why are people committing these crimes. The majority of gun violence in Philadelphia isn’t committed by people in rival drug gangs like in a bad, 90s Steven Segal movie. It’s by people who are often involved in criminal things who have easy access to guns but it’s over basic arguments. And people lack the conflict resolution skills that a lot of people have, so someone stepping on someone’s Timberlands, or someone fouling somebody on the basketball court, it escalates because everybody’s trying to protect because they’re feeling disrespected. 

So, at the micro-level, in a prison TV-room, or at the corner of 52nd and Market, or at the macro-level between countries, the majority of conflicts come as a result of perceived disrespect. So, what can we do to help primarily young Black and Brown men in Philadelphia learn how to handle that perceived disrespect, so that we can reduce the gun violence that clearly takes too many lives?

Q: You’re often credited in your early days, and as the first Black D.A. in the history of Pennsylvania, as helping to reduce gun violence and get guns off the streets, something that is an epidemic here in Philadelphia. What would you say has been your proudest achievement during your time in office and, subsequently, your biggest regret?

A: My biggest regret is that I received gifts from friends. I was living beyond my means. I had gotten divorced. I was trying to stay in the house and keep my daughters in private school – trying to keep them with the life that they had become accustomed to. I had bills, and friends of mine helped me out. My regret is that I should have not accepted some of those gifts. I should have reported all of them in accordance with the city’s ethics rules. And I didn’t do that and I terribly regret that. I subsequently agreed with the city’s ethics board to pay a fine. But my biggest regret is letting my daughters and my family and the citizens down for not having dotted all the “i”s or crossed all the “t”s because i was ashamed.

My greatest accomplishment, other than my daughters, is creating the reforms we initiated at the D.A.’s office – community-based prosecution – making the district attorney’s office work in partnership with people to address the community-based needs. Different neighborhoods in Philadelphia have different needs and different problems. Some neighborhoods it is gun violence. Some neighborhoods it’s car thefts or burglaries or vandalism…

I had a great partner in Commissioner Ramsey and then Commissioner Ross who bought in 100 percent with community-based prosecution. That was a great achievement – we were very successful in proving statistically the outcomes of the D.A. ‘s office holding more cases for court; [how to] treat non-violent, first-time offenders, and allow us to use our resources towards what I thought was the greatest problem of the time which was gun violence. By creating the gun violence task force, we saw significant reductions in gun violence. At the same time, I tripled the number of DA’s in our charging unit to make sure we only charged the right people with the right crimes…

Q: So what is next for you in life? Where can we find you these days?

A: I’m very fortunate. George Mosey, who had been my assistant district attorney is now the executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network (PAAN). His employees do a phenomenal job going out directly into the community to intervene in violence and violence interrupters and trying to help young men and women who might be addicted get into recovery and to address the violence in our streets. So since July, I’ve been working as a consultant with PAAN. I’ve been doing ZOOM discussions with young folks who are in diversionary programs…

My friend gave me a job at The Hairston Foundation, where I was trying to help employ more returning citizens. But now I have a wonderful opportunity. I was named to be the program director of the HJH Vocational Training Center here in Philadelphia. In 1977, a guy named Herb Hoelter founded NCIA, the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. So, instead of sending people to prison, it gives courts and judges and prosecutors alternatives. That blossomed into programs, institutions. He has residential and non-residential programs for people with learning disabilities in Maryland. In 2017, they founded a vocational training center to give chronically underemployed and unemployed veterans and returning citizens vocational training. HVAC, culinary arts, getting their CDL – commercial driver’s licenses – getting their FAA certification to be drone pilots. You know the top 10 jobs in America now didn’t exist 10 years ago? So, I’ll be the director in creating this program in Philadelphia…I’m going to be teaching them the workforce readiness skills that they need to not only get a job, but more importantly, to thrive and remain in the workforce. And not go back to jail. So, I’m really excited about this.  

  • PW Editor Jenny DeHuff

    Jenny DeHuff has been a part of the Philadelphia media landscape for the last 15 years on just about every level of journalism. She started out at The Bulletin, a conservative voice for Philadelphia, then moved through the region as she honed her career as the City Hall reporter at the Daily News, and later as an editor at Philly Voice. As Philadelphia Weekly's editor-in-chief, DeHuff brings a viewpoint that constantly begs the question of a progressive-leaning Philadelphia. Say hello at jdehuff@philadelphiaweekly.com.

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