Philly DA candidates all say Seth Williams should step down

All eight candidates vying to replace Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said on Thursday night that the city’s indicted top prosecutor should resign before his term ends.

Every candidate also expressed support for maintaining the city’s status as a “sanctuary city.” Under the policy, local police refuse to hand over suspects thought to be in the country illegally to federal authorities for deportation unless a judge’s warrant is produced. 

Another subject of unanimous backing: legalizing recreational marijuana in Philadelphia. Possessing small amounts is already decriminalized in the city, but this would go a step further. 

On many other topics hit upon Thursday evening at a debate among those hoping to be the city’s next top prosecutor held at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, the distinctions among the slate of candidates were in shades, rather than stark differences. WHYY’s Dave Davies and the Chestnut Hill Local’s editor Pete Mazzaccaro moderated the discussion, where the tone stayed courteous and candidates avoided direct attacks on each other.

Candidate Tariq El-Shabazz, who until recently was working for the district attorney’s office, cast a vote of confidence in the office’s work in attempting to combat gun violence and in diverting low-level offenders away from jail.

But opponent Larry Krasner didn’t buy it.

“The DA’s Office is doing all these things now, but it can be improved,” said El-Shabazz, who spent seven months in the office after years of being a defense attorney.

“I hear all these words. And it frankly doesn’t resemble the District Attorney’s Office I’ve been watching for 30 years,” said Krasner, a self-professed outsider in the race who has spent his career defending protesters and victims of alleged police abuse. “The problem is, to a large extent, the fault of the NRA, and the fault of politicians inside the DA’s Office and outside the DA’s Office who did whatever it is the NRA wanted.” 

Later, former federal prosecutor Joe Khan said the office needs to not be afraid to go after police officers who abuse their authority. “That is the function and a symptom of a broken culture in the District Attorney’s Office, and that needs to change,” Khan said. 

Rich Negrin, former city managing director, who has the support of the city’s police union, wouldn’t go that far, but he slammed over-charging — when prosecutors file tougher charges than necessary.  He called a felony conviction a “lifetime sentence of poverty.”

Michael Untermeyer, a one-time assistant district attorney, wants to see a hard crackdown on illegal guns and white-collar crime.

Teresa Carr-Deni who resigned as a judge to run for DA, said big pharma should be threatened with litigation for their role in the city’s heroin epidemic, which claimed more than 900 lives last year. Krasner agreed.

Beth Grossman, the only Republican among the eight contenders, was also alone in her defense of the controversial civil asset forfeiture program, where authorities can seize a suspected drug dealers home, car or other possession even before being charged with a crime. As a former assistant district attorney, Grossman said she saw the tactic used effectively.

“The story that always gets lost in that are the people who live in the neighborhoods next to drug houses, where they’re scared for their children to walk past the drug-dealing houses,” Grossman said. “It is an effective tool that works, and it was followed within the law.”

Other candidates, including former assistant district attorney Jack O’Neill and Khan, would like to see a program known as focused deterrence expanded. That’s when police work with communities to determine who is most likely to be caught up in gun violence and providing them with other options.

Negrin, too, acknowledged that the availability of guns in Philadelphia is a major problem.

“In our neighborhoods,” he said. “It is easier for a kid to find a gun, then it is for them to find a vegetable, or get online, or find a good after-school program.”

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