Abraham tries to shed ‘Deadliest D.A.’ image for community builder


Lynne Abraham was Philadelphia’s longest-serving district attorney and easily won election four times in her 19-year tenure. But despite being well-known across the city, she’s fallen behind in the mayoral contest. 

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Abraham has been known by the nicknames “one tough cookie” and “The Deadliest D.A.” One she has embraced — the other, she has sought to shed in her campaign.

She was born in West Philadelphia and graduated from Temple Law School at a time when very few women did so.

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As a young prosecutor under the late District Attorney Arlen Specter, former colleagues say she was confident and meticulously prepared.

Arnold Gordon remembers her performance in a courtroom around 1970 as she was prosecuting a high-profile murder case. He watched her cross-examine a witness who began talking about something that happened in a town in upstate Pennsylvania.

“It was clear that she had gone to that town to visit it in order to become familiar with anything that might come up with the case and what was impressive about that was that town was not the scene of the crime,” Gordon said. “The crime obviously occurred in Philadelphia.”

Gordon would become Abraham’s first deputy when she was named D.A. 20 years later.

Ethics as a watchword

Not long after that moment in the courtroom, in 1972, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo, Jr. tapped Abraham to run the city’s Redevelopment Authority. At the time, Rizzo called her “one tough cookie.”

He fired Abraham after 14 months because she refused his patronage hires, but she still jokingly brings chocolate chip cookies to campaign events and meetings with ward leaders to this day. 

In the late 1970s and 80s, Abraham served as a judge — first in the Municipal Court and then in the Court of Common Pleas. Her fellow justices appointed her district attorney in 1991 when then-D.A. Ron Castille stepped down to run for mayor. 

For 19 years, Gordon and Abraham oversaw more than 600 prosecutors and staffers. Gordon ran the day-to-day operations while Abraham was the public face of the office and set the tone for policy.

“Lynne and Arnie together, one watch word is an over-arching principal and that is ethics,” said Kathy McDonnell, a retired assistant D.A. who was chief of the Legislation Unit and chair of the hiring committee under Abraham.

Former staffers describe Abraham as an effective manager who hired and fired people based on merit alone and despite her fierce independence, consulted her staff before making big decisions.

She relished traveling to Harrisburg to lobby for changes in the law as legislative chairperson of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. In that capacity, she successfully pushed to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to allow children to testify in court via closed-circuit television, which became the subject of one of her TV ads

Abraham kept a full schedule and after long hours in the office, was always dashing off to meet with community groups or participate in block cleanups or attend funerals for crime victims.

“When I would walk down the street with her, people would yell out of buses, people would yell on the street – hey!” said McDonnell. “They felt a connection with her. They didn’t feel a bad connection like she’s the man, she’s gonna put us away.”

But that is how some Philadelphians did and still do see Abraham.

As she filed out of a mayoral forum in April, North Philadelphia community activist Judith Robinson criticized Abraham’s use of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law, which allows the D.A.’s office to seize properties allegedly used for drug deals and sell them — a practice that continues under Abraham’s successor, Seth Williams.

‘Ignoring a lot of defects in the system’

Sometimes, Robinson said, innocent residents in poor, mostly black neighborhoods ended up being collateral damage.

“I understand selling drugs is illegal,” she said. “It’s out of order, but nobody asked Lynne Abraham to go and take someone’s house.”

In 1995, New York Times Magazine dubbed Abraham “The Deadliest D.A.” because her office sought the death penalty more often than any other in the country.

She also pushed for longer sentences for criminals, which critics say disproportionately affected black men. Along with then-Mayor Ed Rendell, Abraham advocated to end the court-mandated caps on the city’s prison population. 

Edith Dixon, a community activist in Southwest Philadelphia, believes Abraham doesn’t deserve that criticism because of her devotion to helping crime victims and the poor.

“I’ve heard people say all she’s done is lock up black people and I think that’s an unfair assessment,” Dixon said. “Maybe her way to try to even the scales was to build community because there’s no way you can say that that hasn’t happened.”

Civil rights lawyer David Rudovsky gives Abraham credit for the relationships she built with neighborhood and victims’ rights groups and for maintaining her integrity in the transactional world of Philadelphia politics throughout her 19 years in office.

However, his chief criticism of Abraham is that she did not apply her hard line on crime to corrupt members of the Philadelphia Police Department.

“It was not only a focus on crime and penalty and punishment,” Rudovsky said. “The flip side of the coin was ignoring police crimes and ignoring a lot of defects in the system that led to false convictions, to erroneous convictions and led to very unfair trials.”

Abraham defends her record by rattling off a list of city departments she did take to task and the scathing grand jury report her office released on decades of sexual abuse by priests with the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.  However, it was only a successor who successfully prosecuted high-profile clergy cases.

While she is unapologetic for her “tough on crime” approach, she supports Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium on capital punishment and a recent court ruling that tightened the limits on civil asset forfeiture. These shifts come from her deep respect for the law, she says.

But Rudovsky wonders if Abraham has really changed.

“I think it’s really vision and I haven’t heard so far in this campaign a vision that’s very different from what she had 20 years ago,” he said.

Can a prosecutor fix the schools?

Another question is whether she can apply her law-and-order background to a city where education and economic development are the issues of the day.

Former staffers say she is a quick study with a wide range of interests. Abraham claims she has met with former mayors of Philadelphia and other big cities to prepare herself for the job. Although she would not name names, she later shows me a picture she took with former Newark, N.J. mayor and Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.

But her most important experience, she says, is the one she got as D.A. She often saw the city at its worst, but still feels optimistic about its future.

“Being out in the community, dealing with people where they live – that makes you ready to be a leader,” she said.

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