Seeing DA Seth Williams handcuffed was surreal

Now-former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams

Part of me wanted to lash out at now-former District Attorney Seth Williams for turning out to be another low-down, crooked politician who sold out his office.

But another part of me was saddened to see him standing handcuffed in that courtroom on Thursday like a common street criminal.

Earlier, the city’s top prosecutor had unexpectedly pleaded guilty to one count of accepting a bribe from Bucks County businessman Mohammad Ali. It was a surprising twist in his two-week-long corruption trial.

But the drama was really only starting.

Seth Williams arrives at the federal courthouse. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

After U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond dismissed the jury, things moved quickly. At one point, Williams took the witness stand to make the case that he wasn’t a flight risk and could be trusted to show up at  his Oct. 24 sentencing.

Under oath, Williams claimed he had less than $200 in the bank, no credit cards, and no vehicle. (How is that possible after earning nearly $200,000 a year?)

If the judge allowed him to remain free, Williams said, he would ride one of his four bicycles and also use SEPTA. Or maybe he’d borrow his ex-wife’s car. As he spoke of his daughters and the custody arrangement he shares with ex-wife Sonita Williams, his voice shook with emotion.

He testified about having given her his financial power of attorney and having temporarily taken his home off the market. The prosecutor who once referred to himself as a “thankful beggar” said that if he remained free, he would have to rely on her and friends for money, since he had resigned his office that day.

Williams had me feeling sorry for him and the complete mess he’s made of his life, but the judge didn’t fall for his pity party.

“I do not believe him,” Diamond declared from the bench.

Sonita, a beautiful woman wearing a bright flowered dress and sweater, sobbed as the realization sank in that Williams wouldn’t be home any time soon. I wondered what was going to happen to her. A real estate investor had once said Williams had asked him to rent her a house in Drexel Hill at a below-market rate.

I glanced around but didn’t see Stacey Cummings, the temperamental tire-slasher who last year admitted damaging two city-owned vehicles that had been parked outside Williams’ house. Also, where were all of his friends? You’d think that the courtroom would have been packed with relatives and supporters. But I counted maybe five or six men, one of whom indicated he was Williams’ spiritual adviser. Where were all the big-shot Union League contacts Williams spent all that money wooing and the politicos who had slapped him on the back all of these years?

When it was time to be remanded to custody, Williams solemnly stood. He appeared dazed; his gaze was unfocused as his wrists were handcuffed behind his back. Williams didn’t say anything as they guided him toward a side door. He paused briefly, glanced in the direction of his supporters, and disappeared.

Talk about an awful, gut-wrenching moment.

Williams faces a maximum sentence of five years.

That’s a steep price to pay for a used Jaguar that Williams testified probably doesn’t operate anymore. Same thing with that pricey sectional sitting in his family room. It’s made of a really nice fabric. Maybe Sonita will sell it so he can buy snacks at the prison commissary. Same thing with those other expensive gifts he accepted.

Justice has been served for Williams. It will likely be a long while before he’s free again — something that was hard for his supporters to accept.

“If you just look at, really, the details of the crimes, they just weren’t so heinous that you would think he would be remanded into custody immediately,” said Randy Robinson, a political consultant, as he exited the courtroom. “It was unwarranted. I think that the court wanted to make a statement that wasn’t absolutely necessary.

“The public shaming of him, his losing his law license, and for the public to see that, I think that was penalty enough,” said Robinson, who had tried to comfort Sonita as she wept on his shoulder.

Not really.

Williams cheated, lied to, and defrauded us. The punishment for that is steep.