Jury selection begins Monday in the federal corruption trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
Prosecutors claim Williams traded his influence for thousands of dollars in cash, trips and gifts, engaged in fraudulent use of campaign funds, and even stole from his own mother.
Veteran defense attorney Chuck Peruto Jr., who is not involved in the Williams’ case, said in an interview the government’s evidence is compelling, and that Williams should have negotiated a guilty plea.
“I think it’s a suicide mission to go to trial,” Peruto said.
Williams, 50, has already admitted accepting cash and gifts.
In January, he agreed to pay a $62,000 fine to the City of Philadelphia Board of Ethics for failing to report gifts on required disclosure forms for six years.
Peruto said Williams’ best hope is for his lawyers to argue that he never fixed a case in return, so the gifts and cash weren’t bribes.
“It’s cross examination, to demonstrate these things are not illegal. They might be unethical, but they’re not illegal per se, that they’re commonplace,” Peruto said. “You have to get a jury who’s really, really lenient to go along with it. It’s a tough, tough case.”
George Parry, an attorney who’s worked as both a state and federal prosecutor, agreed Williams’ only defense is that the gifts were innocent favors from friends. Parry also has no involvement in the case.
“The problem he’s going to have is he did not report these benefits on his state disclosure statements,” Parry said. “And if everything was just fine, and he had no criminal intent, then why did he not report what he received?”
Peruto said he wouldn’t advise Williams to testify in the case.
In Parry’s view, the two-term Democrat has no choice but to take the stand.
“In my experience, any time a criminal defendant doesn’t testify, all you’re doing is conducting a slow guilty plea,” Parry said.
“Williams is a very loquacious guy. I’m sure he can be very appealing. But whether a jury is going to want to listen to him, after the government presents its evidence, really remains to be seen.”
Williams’ attorney, Thomas Burke, declined comment on the upcoming trial, as did Assistant U.S Attorney Robert Zauzmer.
Williams withdrew from his re-election campaign in February, but has chosen to remain in office while he fights the corruption charges.
He wouldn’t be required to relinquish the office unless he is convicted and sentenced for any crimes.