ABOVE PHOTO: R. Seth Williams (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Once upon a time, R. Seth Williams was one of the City of Philadelphia’s top law enforcement officers. Now, he’s trying to figure out life as a returning citizen.
By Denise Clay
The last time that many of us saw R. Seth Williams, it was in a courtroom at the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Center City.
Williams, the City of Philadelphia’s first African American District Attorney, was looking at a lot of prison time. The 29-count indictment against him included offenses such as honest services fraud, bribery, extortion and wire fraud.
But the charge that stood out to everyone, especially Federal Judge Paul Diamond, was defrauding the nursing home that was caring for his late mother, Imelda, who was battling Parkinson’s Disease, and family friends Luther and Sylvia Randolph, who gave him $10,000 that federal prosecutors said was supposed to go to his mother’s care but wound up in Williams’s bank account instead.
Williams wound up pleading guilty to one count of bribery and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in April 2020 and is now back in Philadelphia.
It was a trial that showed a lot of us how the other half lived. Dinners at the Union League. Trips to warm, sunny vacation spots. Luxury cars. The phrase “$200 cheese plate.” Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture gear.
Williams’s life is quite far removed from all that now. Due to his being disbarred, he’s working with the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network. He’s also worked at a big box store, has taught GED classes and has had some of the same issues that other returning citizens have had to face, such as trying to find housing. It’s given him some insight that he didn’t have previously, he admits.
The SUN sat down with the former District Attorney and talked about what brought him to this point, his life after prison, what we get wrong as a society when it comes to criminal justice, and whether or not he’ll ever run for office again.
SUN: Thank you for taking the time out to talk with me. I guess my first question for you is, how long have you been out and what have you been doing since you’ve been out?
SW: I came home April 23 of 2020 and served six months on house arrest.
My house arrest ended Sept. 30 and I’m now on what’s known as supervised release. So, I have three years of supervised release. In the federal system, you don’t have parole, but it’s the same thing. After about a year, I can motion the court to end that.
SUN: You decided to take a plea, and you thought that you would be able to do that, and go home, but that’s not what happened. You were taken into custody and taken to the Federal Detention Center at 8th and Arch Streets. You were placed into solitary confinement. As someone who had sent people to jail, did you get a new perspective?
SW: Clearly, it gave me a completely different perspective. There’s nothing that can really prepare you personally, especially when I had no expectation in my life that I’d ever get prosecuted. I was taken to a cell in the specialized housing unit, known as the shoe. I was in a 7ft by 12ft concrete room with just a steel bunk bed and a stainless-steel toilet and a shower, that’s all. By myself. And so, the very first day, very first moment I came in, there’s just so much to process, you know? And I sat on the floor, and in there I heard a voice, speaking to me through a grid that connected my cell to the next cell. And the guy said “Man, who the hell did you piss off?!”
But to answer your question, after 48 hours in prison, in solitary confinement, I really came to believe that I thought other prosecutors, all judges, could benefit from this experience of being there and seeing the reality of what goes on. Because I’ve always talked about us needing to have a more restorative and less punitive criminal justice system. Having more diversionary programs. But really thinking about why are we using incarceration if the goal is to prevent crime, then let’s use the resources of society that we know prevent crime, right? So, I just began to learn a lot.
SUN: I covered your trial. I had never covered a trial where the District Attorney was charged with stuff because usually, when I’m in a trial setting, the District Attorney usually did the charging. How did you get there?
SW: I loved the job. And I think that I was definitely prepared operationally and strategically to become a district attorney. But I don’t think I was ready emotionally for the trauma of just being the DA. Having a phone that goes off all day when people are shot, murdered or raped. Going to the hospital when police officers are murdered. Buildings collapsing on firefighters, and just the political reality in Philadelphia. It was a lot. And I began to numb myself from some things. I didn’t have a healthy way to deal with it. And so, unfortunately, I numbed myself with Jack Daniels and martinis and other self-destructive behaviors like that. So that’s part of it.
Another part, of course, and taking responsibility for my own actions, I was living beyond my means. I was divorced. I was paying child support, alimony, trying to keep my kids in the school they’d been attending. My house was upside down so I couldn’t sell it really. But I should have not tried to maintain those things. I should have downsized as much as possible. I was still working like four jobs. I was the DA. I was in the National Guard. I was teaching at Temple, Penn and Villanova Law Schools, but I was living beyond my means. So, friends knew that and tried to help me out. Give me gifts for this or that, or you go on trips with friends. I should have reported all of my gifts so there’s no question about that. And I ultimately negotiated with the City’s Ethics Board to pay a fine for not reporting my gifts timely and accurately. But there was an individual who worked for me, and we had to take him off of my security detail because someone had alleged that he had sexually abused her, and he ultimately went to the FBI thinking that he was going to get retaliation against her and myself for having been removed from the security detail. The FBI began investigating for ghost employees, which ultimately showed that that wasn’t the case. But they started looking at everything.
And so, ultimately, they charged me with five counts for driving my city vehicle for personal use, which wasn’t even a crime. So, they charged me with 29 things, and we went on trial. And then after one bad day, the last day we had before the plea, I was given an offer to plead guilty to one count, a violation of the Travel Act, something which I had never heard of. Ultimately, I have to accept responsibility for what I know is my role.
SUN: I mentioned to folks that I was going to be talking to you, and one of the things that ultimately came up was the first day of testimony, when the woman from the nursing home that your mother was in, the St. Francis Country House, was on the stand. As you’re hearing that in court, what were you thinking? Was that one of the things that made you decide to take a plea?
SW: No. My mother and I know the truth about all of the charges related to the nursing home and me being the first American prosecutor to prosecute the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for shielding pedophile priests and the role that played in the charge associated with the St. Francis Country House. So, no.
SUN: Now that you’ve experienced it yourself, what is it about prisoners or prison that you think we as a society get wrong?
SW: There’s so many things. Prisons provide nothing rehabilitation-wise to the inmates. Anything that the inmates learn to rehabilitate themselves is because of their own motivation or another inmate serving as a mentor and taking them under their wing. There’s almost nothing institutionally that addresses any of the criminogenic needs that prevent recidivism. I’ve learned that if we want to prevent crime, if we want to reduce recidivism, I would say about 8 out of 10 of the inmates that I knew and came into contact with struggled with mental health issues in one form or another. Well, we can identify those things when people are in the third grade, when they’re very young. If we want to prevent crime, we need to treat mental health in the community-based ways after identifying those individuals early on and giving them the therapeutic help they need early. What we do now is we wait for people that act out, and then we give them poor mental health treatment while they’re incarcerated. I’ve learned that it’s not the severity of punishment that changes people, it’s the certainty of punishment. The system is just so random. Our system is punitive with bizarre sentences that have no correlation to reducing recidivism.
SUN: So, what are you doing now?
SW: So, what I’m doing now… is… I continue to learn in a quiet way, interacting daily with the people I live with. I taught GED for almost three years, and that was an amazing experience. It’s also part of preventing crime. For every $100 we invest in early childhood education, we save $600 in prison costs.
What I want to do is to use my professional experiences and my personal life journey to help others to use what I’ve been through as a testimony to the grace of God. If he can help me, he can help anyone.
When I got home, I worked for a large box home improvement store as an overnight stocker, working from 7pm to 5:30 am stocking shelves and internet fulfillment. Again, you’d think it’s a crazy thing to go from being the DA to carrying toilets, air conditioners and lumber overnight, but it’s about being in the right place at the right time. After this summer, George Floyd was murdered and the young men I worked with were angry. And I was there at just the right place and the right time to provide some sort of pastoral counseling to keep their lives on track. I worked for a friend that has a home health care agency. I help him with policy, so that he can employ more returning citizens. I provide voter education and voter registration for returning citizens. I thought I was going to give up my right to vote.
I’ve been working with George Mosey at the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network. As DA, I wanted to prevent crime from almost a 30,000-foot level, but the men and women that work at PAAN are on the ground floor. They’re out in the street trying to interrupt violence daily with information they’re learning from neighbors and community groups about young men that might have beefs with each other. They try to teach conflict resolution and interrupt the violence and just try to help change and help families.
I’m also officiating weddings.
SUN: So, will you ever practice law again?
SW: So, my license was suspended, or I was disbarred for five years. So, I can reapply for my license in 2022. I don’t know how long it’s going to take or what I’m going to have to pay, but I would like to practice law again. I’m not sure I’ll practice law the way that people normally see it, but I worked very hard to get it.
SUN: How are things with you and your kids now that you’re back home?
SW: I’m very thankful for the love and support of family and my children, but sometimes it’s very difficult. You know, going from going everywhere with me to black tie, red carpet events, to their friends tweeting and talking about “Your Dad’s a convict!” Building those relationships is going to take time and it’s something I’m committed to doing for the rest of my life. I’m really thankful for the love and support of my daughters who wrote me and stuck with dad when they weren’t responsible for anything that happened to them. They were the greatest victims in all of this. I lost my house, my pension, the youngest one had to be taken out of a school she loved. They are my sheros.
SUN: One last question. You mentioned that you wanted to get your law license back. And despite looking at some serious charges, former President Donald Trump is still talking about running for president in 2024. Do you see yourself getting back into politics?
SW: I have no intention of running for office. There is a value to people who change the political discourse and use the resources of society to address things. At this point, I think I will make a greater impact personally at the microlevel, one on one with folks that need help out in the street in a way that I couldn’t from 30,000 feet up in the air.
SUN: Thank you so much for your time, Seth. I really appreciate it.
SW: Thank you.