Abraham lays the blame on everyone but herself

Lynne Abraham at last week's hearing. The former district attorney acknowledged problems in the city's justice system.
Lynne Abraham at last week's hearing. The former district attorney acknowledged problems in the city's justice system.
Posted: May 09, 2010

The late Mayor Frank Rizzo called Lynne Abraham a "tough cookie," and she milked that moniker for years. But Abraham was really nothing more than a bully.

Abraham left office in January after 18 long years as Philadelphia's district attorney. After all that time as the city's top prosecutor, it was telling that the best job she could land was at a second-tier law firm based in New Jersey.

Abraham seemed destined for a quiet life in private practice. But she was back in the news briefly last week, blaming everyone but herself for the city's troubled justice system.

She spoke at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on crime and drugs, called by Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) in response to an Inquirer series detailing numerous problems in the city courts. The main thrust of the series was that the city's conviction rates have been abysmal.

A federal study found Philadelphia had the lowest conviction rates among the nation's large urban counties. A separate Inquirer analysis of 31,000 criminal cases in 2006 and 2007 found that defendants accused of violent crimes walked free in nearly two-thirds of cases. Only one in 10 people charged with a gun assault was convicted, and only two in 10 accused armed robbers were found guilty, the paper found.

Turns out the tough cookie was really a paper tiger. For all her bluster, Abraham couldn't even put away two-bit thugs.

Last week, instead of offering some insight to help fix the system, Abraham challenged the paper's findings. But she didn't have any data to counter the numbers in the story. Instead, she resorted to the tired tactic of shooting the messenger, implying that The Inquirer had some hidden agenda.

"Could this possibly be a vain attempt at trying to capture their former prowess as a news-gathering organization?" she asked.

If Abraham meant that the series was The Inquirer at its best, she was right. It was classic, in-depth enterprise reporting, and a public service.

No doubt the series came as the business side of newspapers, including The Inquirer, is hurting. But it showed that great journalism still plays an important role in our democracy. (Don't look for this type of story on local TV news, AM radio, or the blogosphere.)

While Abraham was questioning the stories, she also acknowledged many of the problems they highlighted. But she said none of them had anything to do with her.

Instead, she blamed judges for low conviction rates, saying they dismiss too many cases to clear their dockets, which may be true. She said the problems surrounding the bail system and witness intimidation have been around since at least 1968 - a not-so-subtle dig at Specter, who was district attorney then.

Then she criticized current District Attorney Seth Williams for his commonsense decision to treat minor marijuana offenses as misdemeanors to help unclog the courts.

One newsroom wag joked that Abraham, for her part, treated political corruption as a misdemeanor. The same could be said for her kid-gloves treatment of problem cops.

But with Abraham gone from office, top court officials - starting with state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille - are working to fix what everyone agrees is a broken Philadelphia criminal-justice system. Fortunately, Abraham is no longer an obstacle to that change, and Williams has embraced the effort.

During the primary race for district attorney last year, five Democratic candidates met with The Inquirer's Editorial Board. Each had worked for Abraham, and not one of them had a good thing to say about how she managed the office.

After Abraham stepped down, her name was mentioned as the potential next U.S. attorney for Philadelphia. Specter, along with Sen. Bob Casey, recommended several candidates for the post to President Obama. During the process, I asked Specter if Abraham was a serious candidate. In his dry Kansas drawl, he replied, "She's a candidate."

Abraham is now said to be mulling a run for state attorney general. If she's successful, it may take care of any concerns about politics influencing current Attorney General Tom Corbett's "Bonusgate" investigation of the state legislature. That's because investigating corruption was never a priority with Abraham.

The upshot of Abraham's testimony last week was that she has nothing of value to add to the public debate. The city is better off with her parked at a law firm based in New Jersey.

Paul Davies can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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