There has been an abundance of change in the leadership team at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office as the office comes off a major reorganization to assign prosecutors along geographic lines and gears up to focus on ways to reduce the number of people who commit new crimes and to get better data on how criminal cases proceed through the criminal justice system.
With the leadership changes, the office will have the largest number of female attorneys serving as deputies in charge of the office’s divisions that it has ever had, District Attorney Seth Williams said in an interview with The Legal earlier this month.
The leadership changes started when former First Assistant District Attorney Joseph McGettigan left for medical leave June 2 and then joined the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office, where he is now part of the prosecution team in the criminal case against Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach accused of sexually abusing several boys.
Edward McCann, who was chief of the homicide unit under former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and has been chief of the trial division under Williams, became the first assistant district attorney.
While saying that McGettigan is an “outstanding trial attorney” and doing “God’s work” in the prosecution of Sandusky, Williams said that “Ed has my back” and shares his vision that there needs to be a new paradigm for Philadelphia prosecutors.
Williams said he often turns to the book ” Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times” by Donald T. Phillips when facing a leadership dilemma. One of the chapters is about the series of generals President Abraham Lincoln went through — until Ulysses S. Grant — to find a military champion to prosecute the Civil War against rebelling Southern states, Williams said.
Williams said that unlike Lincoln, he only had to go through one person.
McCann was one of the three finalists the first time Williams was hiring his first assistant district attorney, Williams said.
For his part, McCann said he and Williams have been speaking for a decade about the changes they would like to make in the city’s criminal justice system and that he could both provide an understanding of the changes Williams wants to implement and put to use the good relationships he has with leaders in the First Judicial District.
A cascade of other leadership changes started when McCann moved into the slot of first assistant district attorney.
In McCann’s stead, Jodi Lobel was named the deputy district attorney in charge of the trial division Nov. 14.
Under Williams, Lobel first was named chief of the charging unit to carry out reform aimed at more vigorous vetting of the charges levied against criminal defendants. Then Lobel was promoted in March to work as the deputy district attorney in charge of the pretrial division, which was a new division formed under Williams to reflect his aim of vetting cases thoroughly at their outset.
Lobel said that after working in the charging unit and the pretrial division for almost two years, the office was able to initiate all of the pretrial reforms it wanted to initiate except for the development of alternatives to pretrial detention and the development of better bail guidelines.
Prior to the reform, the charging unit was not meaningful, just “a paper processing unit in charge of discovery,” Lobel said.
The pretrial changes also have included implementing diversion programs for defendants charged with possessing small amounts of marijuana and for defendants charged with nonviolent misdemeanors that affect the quality of community life, as well as zoning the Criminal Justice Center’s courtrooms, judges and prosecutors to align with the city’s detective divisions on the theory that collecting cases from the same neighborhoods in the same courtrooms would lead to better identification of crime patterns and better crime-fighting.
Williams said that people thought centralizing the preliminary hearings, which used to be held out in police districts, into the city’s downtown courthouse would “shut everything down.”
But zoning the courthouse, which was a key campaign platform of Williams’, has made the system “even more efficient,” he said.
Williams said that next on his agenda is finding more ways to reduce recidivism, resolving more cases prior to trial, establishing more diversion programs, and “teaching young men conflict resolution skills.”
The recidivism rate is definitely tied “to lack of respect for the court’s orders and the fugitive problem that is really endemic. We really haven’t spent enough resources and time on that,” McCann said.
The criminal justice system needs to address the “total lack of respect that exists with a court subpoena,” McCann said.
Lobel said that, because she has been out of the trial division for almost two years and she was not working in the division after it was reorganized along geographic lines, she first plans to find out if there are areas of improvement needed in the office’s handling of second-degree and third-degree felonies — “the quality of life cases.”
Lobel said she wants to address cases that linger in the system or cases that break down in the system.
Lobel also hopes to continue to change the mindset of defense attorneys who, she said, continue to assume “if you’re making an offer there must be something wrong with your case instead of we’re trying to do the right thing, just doing it earlier, better and smarter.”
data, data, data
Lobel was replaced as deputy of the pretrial division by Laurie Malone, who was chief of the Southwest Division Bureau.
Malone is “really a systems person” with the right skill set to be the pretrial division deputy, Williams said, and Lobel “has the tactical and trial experience to successfully lead the trial division. … I also wanted to focus on our own success and failures so we could quantify and track what we do, not just anecdotal, ‘Everything looks great,’ to actually be able to quantify through empirical data, by gathering through statistical information, what we’re doing here.”
Williams said that the mission of developing empirical data will largely fall to Ann Ponterio, who was appointed as the first deputy district attorney in charge of performance, audit and innovation. Ponterio was formerly the chief of the homicide unit. Ponterio has been a prosecutor for 28 years and a homicide prosecutor for 21 years.
While working as a homicide prosecutor, Ponterio attended a master’s program for public administration at the University of Pennsylvania Fels Institute of Government between 1992 and 1994.
Ponterio said the program focused on four areas: quantitative assessment and analysis, management, finance and politics.
The area of quantitative assessment and analysis from Ponterio’s degree will be the one coming in the most handy for her new job.
“One of my functions will be collecting and analyzing data … [that] must be complete, timely and consistent so I will be looking at the collection of data over the last two years since the DA has come on board and in the past year since zoned” courts came on board, Ponterio said.
Ponterio also said that she will be looking at the collection of data through the statewide criminal court case management system, looking at the resources in the office and what are the best staffing options, and reviewing the best practices of other district attorney offices and implementing them in Philadelphia.
The biggest challenge in her new position is that there are gaps in the data available in criminal courts, including information about why cases were continued, Ponterio said.
Malone’s job will be to look at developing more diversion programs, including seeking grant funding, looking at bail issues and the issue of the number of fugitives who have not shown up for court, she said.
Malone’s portfolio also includes the development of electronic discovery.
Malone estimates e-discovery will be rolled out within the year.
The pretrial division’s function is to try to allocate the office’s “limited resources to push as many cases in certain diversion programs and if they don’t fit into any diversion program we try to determine what is the best pretrial offer we can make before it moves to the trial division,” Malone said.
Williams’ goal is to dispose of close to 80 percent of cases pretrial.
With Ponterio’s move, Jennifer Selber was named chief of the homicide unit and Lynn Nichols was named assistant chief of the homicide unit in the second week of December.
And with Malone’s new home, William Davis was named the chief of the Southwest Division Bureau.