Philly DA's office needs a change, but not this kind

Lynne Abraham, who served 18 years as Philadelphia’s district attorney, wants to return to the post for the rest of 2017.

The selection of a new district attorney in Philadelphia — albeit an interim DA who will serve until the end of 2017, when the winner of the November election (in which Democrat Lawrence Krasner is heavily favored) starts a four-year term — should be a cause for celebration. It’s the next big step for moving past the era of disgraced ex-DA Seth Williams, who pleaded guilty last month to selling out his office. In a perfect world, the interim DA will serve as a bridge between finally putting the dim past of the office in the rear view era and a bold new age of reform, which is coming under either Krasner or, to a lesser extent, underdog GOP rival Beth Grossman.

But this is Philadelphia, and we have a long history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory (and not just in sports.) It doesn’t help matters that — in classic Philly fashion — the process for picking Williams’ successor on Thursday is about as undemocratic as it gets. The interim DA will be picked by 88 judges, barely accountable to the public, who will hold multiple ballots until one of the 14 interested candidates gets a majority. The system for electing a new Pope feels more transparent — at least they pump out that cool white smoke.

But here’s two important things to know going into the vote later this week.

  1. Under no circumstances — let me repeat that in big annoying capital letters…NO CIRCUMSTANCES — can the job go to the former district attorney who has tossed her hat into the ring, Lynne Abraham. Honestly, I’d rather see a return of the grifter Williams than a throwback Thursday for the bad old days of Abraham, whose zeal for the death penalty, decimation of Philadelphia neighborhoods through mass incarceration policies, and role in wrongly convicting some city residents of murder makes her completely unsuitable. Here’s what I wrote about Abraham’s DA politicking earlier this year:

[Abraham ran an] an office that relied in too many big cases on questionable high-pressure police confessions and hardball witness coercion, that pursued the death penalty with draconian glee, and made Philly a mass incarceration capital of the world.

Last year, a report by the Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project lambasted Abraham as one of America’s “five deadliest DAs” who, collectively, have been responsible for one out of every seven people still on death row in America. It argues that the 108 death sentences won by Abraham — who branded herself famously as “One Tough Cookie” — are a grim example of “personality-driven capital sentencing.” A top assistant who tried many of those cases, the late Roger King, had plastered his wall with pictures from the capital cases he’d prosecuted, with a circle-slash around the face of suspects and “death” written on every one.

2. I’m not big on making endorsements, and some of the candidates like retired Common Pleas Court Judge Ben Lerner, said to be a front-runner, have distinguished track records. But from everything I’ve seen in the months since Williams was first indicted earlier this year, his first assistant Kathleen Martin has done a perfectly fine job managing the office. Why rock the boat — whether it’s for a reformer like Lerner or a regressive like Abraham — for five months? As they like to say on TV, winter is coming — and so is a long-awaited radical makeover for criminal justice in Philadelphia. Judges, don’t muck this up.