- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | For nearly 20 years, District Attorney Lynne Abraham has led an office whose alumni include Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, Sen. Arlen Specter and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Ronald D. Castille.

But for the first time since her appointment in 1991, the woman dubbed “America’s deadliest DA” for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty is not seeking re-election.

Six candidates are vying to replace Mrs. Abraham, 68, at a time when cash-strapped Philadelphia is struggling to curb gun violence, encourage reluctant witnesses to come forward in court cases and confront pay-to-play corruption.

The victor in the May 19 Democratic primary will be the heavy favorite in November because nearly 80 percent of city’s voters are Democrats. So far, the race is anyone’s call.

“We don’t even know how these things work,” said Randall Miller, a political specialist at St. Joseph’s University, about the city’s first open district attorney race in more than 20 years. “The office is basically one that [Mrs. Abraham] shaped.”

Mrs. Abraham, the city’s first female DA, hasn’t endorsed a candidate or said what she plans to do after retiring. A spokesman said she does not want to comment on the race.

Both Mr. Rendell and Mrs. Abraham served as assistants under Mr. Specter, who was DA from 1966 to 1974. Mr. Rendell went on to become DA in 1977 and served until 1986, when he ran for mayor; Mrs. Abraham was appointed to replace Mr. Castille — now the state’s chief justice — who also resigned to run for mayor.

Three of this year’s candidates have served under Mrs. Abraham; two others worked in the office before she was appointed.

Seth Williams, 42, a former assistant who challenged Mrs. Abraham four years ago, is seeking to become the city’s first black DA He has the backing of several key groups, some of which have criticized Mrs. Abraham for her pursuit of the death penalty.

Mr. Williams wants to create a system in which prosecutors are assigned to neighborhoods. Such a move, he says, would make them more trusted in the communities and prevent many cases from being thrown out for lack of evidence — generally from reluctant witnesses who are part of a street mentality dubbed “stop snitching.”

“When I ran in 2005, I ran because the criminal justice [system] in Philadelphia is fundamentally broken,” said Mr. Williams, who estimates nearly 60 percent of felony cases are dismissed because prosecutors aren’t prepared. “I was right then, and I’m right now.”

A former inspector general, Mr. Williams promises to crack down on corruption by city employees he says “shake down” taxpayers for things as simple as water shutoffs. Mrs. Abraham’s critics have long accused her of turning a blind eye to the city’s pay-to-play culture.

Violent crime, however, has proved central to the race.

The number of homicides has declined over the past two years — 392 in 2007 and 332 last year — after peaking at 406 in 2006. But Philadelphia is still struggling with gun violence. All the candidates say dealing with the conviction of violent criminals must be one of the office’s top priorities.

“I would love to work the DA out of a job so there’s no crime,” said candidate Dan McElhatton, who would put more of the office’s senior staff and resources toward violent crime. “But that’s not going to happen.”

Mr. McElhatton, 59, was a Philadelphia City Council member for one term, from 1992 to 1996. He also served as an assistant district attorney before Mrs. Abraham took office.

Dan McCaffery, 44, a former assistant district attorney under Mrs. Abraham, is the brother of state Supreme Court Judge Seamus McCaffery.

Two other candidates are considered dark horses in a race that has generated little voter attention in an off-year election.

Brian Grady, 40, also served as an assistant under Mrs. Abraham. Twelve years ago, he gained attention when he punched a defense attorney in the face during an argument in a judge’s chambers. He was fined and suspended and has apologized.

Michael Turner, 52, served as an assistant in the office before Mrs. Abraham arrived. The son of a retired Philadelphia police officer, Mr. Turner has said he will not accept money from political action committees or solicit endorsements.

The primary winner will face little-known Republican Michael Untermeyer in November.

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