Former judge will challenge Philly DA in May primary

Judge Teresa Deni says she will challenge Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in the May Democratic primary. (Deni campaign)

Judge Teresa Deni says she will challenge Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in the May Democratic primary. (Deni campaign)

A former Philadelphia judge is joining the growing list of candidates running against District Attorney Seth Williams, who is up for re-election next year.

Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni, who resigned from the bench last week after serving for 21 years, said in a phone interview Monday that Williams is too “distracted” to be the city’s top prosecutor, citing the ongoing FBI and IRS probe into his finances.

In addition, Deni said she was troubled by Williams’ handling of juvenile lifers seeking resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court declared mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole to be unconstitutional and applied it retroactively. She said offering the inmates plea deals of 35 years in prison to life was not practicing due diligence.

“His position was absurd,” Deni said. “I mean, this is an opportunity to look at these on a case-by-case basis. And to just have a blanket offer of 35-to-life is not doing your job.”

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Deni said Williams’ defense of the district attorney’s civil forfeiture program, where money and other assets are seized from suspected drug dealers, is souring the relationship between prosecutors and vulnerable communities.

“The prosecutorial discretion is not up to par in the DA’s office. The discretion has been abused and misused. And if you have someone who is making inappropriate decisions, I think it’s time to look for a change,” Deni said.

In her campaign statement, Deni said she will work to find alternatives to mass incarceration and fight to put drug kingpins behind bars.

Acknowledging and combating the “historic legacy of racism” that she says permeates the criminal justice system would also be a priority.

There are other aspects of Williams’ eight-year tenure that have concerned Deni. 

She said Williams’ filing of an emergency petition with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to declare Gov. Tom Wolf’s death penalty moratorium unconstitutional was a poor decision.

“I thought that was insane,” said Deni, who said she supports the use of the death penalty in certain instances.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Seth Williams’ campaign, cited a controversial 2007 case Deni presided over in which she would not uphold sexual assault charges filed against a man who allegedly ordered a prostitute at gunpoint to have sex with his friends.

“She consented, and she didn’t get paid. I thought it was a robbery,” Deni told the Philadelphia Daily News in 2007, sparking widespread condemnation from victim advocates and from the chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. 

“It’s surprising that the judge, whose judgment about what constitutes sexual assault has been widely, and correctly, criticized, would ever question the choices someone else makes,” Fee said.

“The district attorney makes decisions based on the facts of the case and believes in doing what is right for the people of Philadelphia — which is one of the reasons the office under his leadership has won national praise for its criminal justice reform efforts,” Fee said. “He looks forward to discussing his record, and the judge’s, in the coming months.”

Deni said her decision in the 2007 case has been misconstrued.

“It was a very complicated case,” Deni said. “I held the man on robbery, not on rape. That being said, there was dissent. The dissent was heard. The case was refilled, and the prosecutor got the decision they wanted. And so, the system worked.

“I have handled over 100,000 cases in the 21 years I’ve been there, and out of all those cases, I don’t understand why everyone wants to focus on this one.”

Joe Khan, a former federal prosecutor, is also challenging Seth Williams. And two others, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, are exploring possible runs.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who chairs the Democratic Party in Philadelphia, told WHYY in October that Williams is a vulnerable candidate who might not receive the party’s backing, which is unusual in district attorney races, where the sitting prosecutor usually enjoys the support of the party. 

“The idea that there are people lined up to run against an incumbent, that tells it all,” Brady said. 

The Democratic primary election is on May 16.

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