When the indictment of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams came, it was worse than most of us expected. Sure, there were $200 ties, $500 meals, lots of free flights and cash, and even a pre-owned 1997 Jaguar convertible. There was some seriously bad behavior as well, such as his stealing money from his own mother in a nursing home and then spending it all on himself. But from the previous news reports, the stakes seemed petty – family vacations and roof repairs and sporting club dues. And the crime itself, if it even was a crime, appeared to involve the friendship of sycophantic businessmen and restauranteurs who wanted nothing more than to be close to the rising political superstar. This was naïve in the extreme.
Instead, the indictment is nothing more, or less, than an old-fashioned case fixing scandal, eliciting predictable condemnation from the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Chancellor of the city’s Bar Association. “I’m merely a thankful beggar,” Williams said of himself; but the indictment shows that he’s not afraid to express his gratitude in a profoundly and brazenly illegal way.
Political scandals are nothing new to Philadelphia, of course; this space tends not to cover them, even when judges go to prison or police are captured acting improperly on videotape. And this scandal, about restaurants in California and vacations to Punta Cana, appears to have nothing to do with capital punishment. But the FBI agent announcing the charges against Williams put his finger on the relevance of this particular outrage: “The immense authority vested to law enforcement has to be kept in check, and that requires decision makers and leaders with a steady ethical compass.”
In every way, the death penalty is about decisions. The most obvious is the choice jurors make between life and death, a decision documented in books and films and songs. For those of us who work in the field, though, the more important decision is the one made by the district attorney to seek the ultimate punishment in the first place. It is this choice that starts what Justice Blackmun famously called “the machinery of death,” and a prosecutor without a steady ethical compass should be the last one to make such a choice. It is almost too obvious to point out, but a district attorney who owes favors to the powerful and cuts deals with his cronies will have to balance the books somewhere else, and that somewhere else will always be on the backs of the poor and the powerless.
This is not to castigate Seth Williams. He will suffer enough ignominy to pay the price for his misdeeds, and no one reading this blog would trade places with him. In addition, we are defenders, and defenders don’t gloat about indictments. Our point is a different one. The death penalty is a human endeavor, and human beings come in all shapes and sizes. Seth Williams is not the first prosecutor to sell an elected office for financial gain, nor will he be the last to brag about how tough he is on criminals while being one himself. As long as the machinery of death is run by innately frail human beings, it will yield an end product that must eventually bring shame to us all.