Seth Williams distracted from freeing innocent prisoners?
Concern about the credibility of Philadelphia's conviction review unit deepened last week when District Attorney Seth Williams tapped the unit's newly minted director to also oversee a high-profile political-corruption probe.
Concern about the credibility of Philadelphia’s conviction review unit deepened last week when District Attorney Seth Williams tapped the unit’s newly minted director to also oversee a high-profile political-corruption probe.
Williams named prosecutor Mark Gilson to supervise a grand jury investigation into four state legislators and a Traffic Court judge who allegedly received cash and gifts without reporting them.
In April, after lengthy resistance, Williams created the conviction review unit to review possible false convictions and appointed Gilson as its leader and sole member.
Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Boyers Bluestine says the DA’s move has prompted new concerns. “As there are still no other staff members assigned to reviewing cases of innocence, we have new reservations about the District Attorney’s commitment to this endeavor,” she says.
Williams’ move comes at a time when prosecutors around the country have begun to aggressively review possible wrongful convictions.
At a press conference on Thursday, Williams brushed aside the suggestion that Gilson’s new assignment would hamper his search for innocent prisoners and said that insufficient funding required many talented staffers in his office to perform multiple tasks. Williams said if he were the “manager of the Phillies and it was the seventh game of the World Series, I’d give the ball to Mark Gilson.”
The District Attorney’s Office denied a request to interview Gilson, and asked that questions be submitted by e-mail. There has been no response to those questions.
Williams became a high-profile antagonist of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane after the Inquirer revealed in March that she quietly dropped the corruption investigation, saying it was badly managed and tainted by racism. Critics like prosecutor Frank Fina, who led the state investigation but now works for Williams, say the case was solid.
It’s not unusual for prosecutors to make their political careers on high-profile cases — and increasingly in Pennsylvania by criticizing and investigating the cases of other prosecutors. Gov. Tom Corbett, the former Republican state attorney general, rode the “Bonusgate” and “Computergate” prosecutions of state legislators into office. Kane, his Democratic successor, was elected after a campaign that accused Corbett of soft-pedaling the child sex-abuse allegations against Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky for political gain.
But on Monday, her office released a long-awaited and detailed independent report — and it found no evidence that Corbett had done so.
Williams’ announced grand jury investigation will allow him to bask in the media spotlight for an extended run. But the predicament facing his political nemesis, Kane, is a reminder that good criminal-justice policy is not always made in the court of public opinion.
In 2013, prosecutors and law enforcement contributed to 38 percent of exonerations nationwide, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which found that “police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions, and to be more responsive to claims of innocence from convicted defendants.”
Conviction review units, also known as conviction integrity units, have in recent years been created in district attorneys’ offices in a number of cities, including Dallas, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
In Brooklyn, newly-elected DA Ken Thompson’s conviction integrity unit includes a large staff and an outside panel of three lawyers to advise it. Thompson made wrongful convictions a top campaign issue, and his office has already exonerated eight people this year.
“Brooklyn, so far, appears to be a model,” says Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law. “It’s a little early to tell, but it’s certainly had more success than any other program in the country that is doing non-DNA cases.”
In Dallas, the unit is led by a former defense attorney who works collaboratively with outside lawyers and innocence projects. In contrast, Manhattan’s is run by a prosecutor and has been accused of being hostile toward defendants. In Philadelphia, Gilson is the sole person assigned — and he is a longtime homicide prosecutor.
It is unclear what kind of unit Williams will embrace and what sort of criteria he will use to reopen old cases. Conviction-integrity units can focus on cases where there is strong evidence that the defendants are innocent. But the Brooklyn and Dallas offices are also looking at cases where defendants should not have been convicted because of serious constitutional errors at trial, according to The Crime Report online news service.
“The key in my mind is transparency,” says John Hollway, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. In Philadelphia, the public has not yet heard much at all.
Bluestine has called on Williams to fully staff Philadelphia’s unit. She said her office had had “several productive meetings” with Gilson, and said that two hard-won exonerations that were announced last week “present the perfect opportunity for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to investigate how two innocent men came to be convicted of a murder neither one committed.”
On the same day that Williams announced Gilson’s new assignment, his office also dropped charges against Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, two North Philadelphia men who served long prison terms for the 1995 murder of Thomas Keal.
Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi ordered a new trial for Gilyard and Felder in October after a man named Ricky Welborn made a detailed confession to committing the murder. DeFino-Nastasi also said that the original “evidence supporting the convictions,” limited to contradictory eyewitness identifications, “was terribly weak.”
The District Attorney had aggressively fought to keep them imprisoned and still refuses to concede that a miscarriage of justice took place. Hollway, who is currently preparing a report on effective conviction integrity units, says that it is important to devise methods to identify errors and their causes — and then to apply that new learning to future cases.
While the Pennsylvania Innocence Project has frequently butted heads with Williams, it has had a productive relationship with Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. In May, the Project gave him its “Hero of Justice Award” for agreeing to implement major reforms, including the video-recording of all homicide-related interrogations and improvements to photo-identification methods.
“I think it’s just a matter of taking it seriously,” says Northwestern’s Warden, who noted that the conviction-integrity in Chicago’s Cook County, “pretty much reminds me of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth — to give lip service to the idea of wrongful convictions without actually doing anything substantial.”
Innocence advocates hope that won’t be the case in Philadelphia.