District Attorney Seth Williams last week allowed a Philadelphia narcotics officer who openly admitted to committing perjury to enter a diversion program that will spare him both prison time and a conviction. In exchange, Christopher Hulmes has agreed not to seek reinstatement as a Philly cop. Though prosecutors were aware of Hulmes’ perjury for years, Williams’ office only filed charges after it was exposed in the press. Today, multiple civil rights suits against Hulmes have been filed in federal court and more than 500 old convictions in which Hulmes was involved could be deemed tainted and thrown out.
“In exchange for the non-trial disposition of the case against former Officer Hulmes, he has entered an agreement never to seek reinstatement as a Philadelphia police officer,” said DA spokesperson Cameron Kline in an email. “He cannot get his job back. As recent events in federal district court have shown, trials of police officers carry uncertain results. In the event of an acquittal, the city is forced not only to reinstate the officers, but to award back pay. That result will not occur here.”
That positive spin on such light punishment is tough to swallow. The diversion program, Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition, is according to the DA’s guide available only to “first time offenders charged with relatively minor offenses.” Defense lawyers, who frequently try and fail to win such leniency for clients accused of lesser crimes, reacted with skepticism at best.
“I have mixed feelings,” emails veteran public defender Brad Bridge, whose work focuses on police misconduct. “On one level, it seems appropriate; after all, it was his first arrest. On another level, however, it seems totally inappropriate. After all, his crime struck at the heart of the criminal justice system, which is totally dependent upon the truthfulness of its witnesses, especially police officers.”
Officer Hulmes’ public saga began in 2014, when a source alerted me, at the time a reporter at the now-defunct Philadelphia City Paper, to an explosive revelation: Hulmes had not only lied under oath but brazenly admitted to doing so, on the stand, in a 2011 drug and gun case. Hulmes admitted to fabricating his account of a drug sting, and was accused of lying about a lot more, landing a man named Arthur Rowland in jail for 28 months. If his lawyer hadn’t exposed the lie, he could have been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison.
"I finally got my life on [track]. I felt like I was being successful," Rowland told me last year, saying that at the time of his arrest he had just had a daughter, and was enrolled at Alvernia University. "I still owe them money for going delinquent cause I couldn't put my loans in deferment."
Hulmes insisted that he had only lied to protect an informant. As my investigation details, however, there are lots of reasons to doubt the odd story he put forward.
As for the District Attorney’s Office, they not only failed to prosecute Hulmes but continued to call him to the stand long after an unknown number of prosecutors in his office were aware of the admitted perjury. It was only after I exposed Hulmes’ lying that District Attorney Seth Williams’ office charged him with perjury, however grudgingly — even after my story was published, for a while, they continued to call him to the stand. My investigation also detailed two other allegations of perjury against Hulmes, including, notably, one made in 2008 by an assistant district attorney.
It always seemed unlikely that Williams would bring Hulmes’ case to trial: his testimony could have proven exceedingly embarrassing to Williams and his office. Asked why he lied, Hulmes might very well have said that prosecutors told him it was no big deal. But diversion was more leniency than even I had expected. Guy Sciolla, Rowland’s lawyer, isn’t convinced by the DA’s argument that Hulmes, like recent officers prosecuted for corruption and abuse in federal court, would likely have escaped conviction.
“This was a person that admitted to lying,” he says. “So how difficult would it be to get a conviction?”
That said, two Philadelphia juries did recently acquit three officers, two of whom were accused of serious physical abuse and one who allegedly made a death threat. Whatever the true rationale underlying Williams’ decision, it should be disturbing to those hoping that, amid widespread protest, police officers will be subjected to the rule of law.
“If it’s considered a serious crime,” says Sciolla, to be “lying to police outside a court room, then how much more serious is it when police admit to lying in a courtroom?...We’re gonna give you ARD, and the opportunity not to have a permanent record, even though your lying resulted in the incarceration of another human being…and also the city of Philadelphia making a payment of $150,000 to him. So this action taken by Mr. Hulmes had some serious ramifications and results.”
In recent years, Williams’ office has granted leniency to police in at least two others cases.
Officer Aquil Byrd “got into a verbal confrontation with another man during” the city’s 2011 Puerto Rican Day parade, according to NBC10, and was “recorded on surveillance video striking him and grabbing him by the throat.” Byrd was charged with simple assault and official oppression. Yet despite the video evidence he was given diversion and is now back on the force. Officer Brian Waters, charged with felony vehicular aggravated assault while driving under the influence and other crimes, was this year allowed to plead guilty to a low-level misdemeanor. Today, he remains on the job.
The DA’s Office would not comment on either case because, according to an email from Kline, “The Office does not comment on it's decision to prosecute or not prosecute cases.” That, of course, is untrue: they provided me with a comment on the Hulmes case.
“I am not shocked that they are giving him ARD,” emails former Assistant District Attorney AJ Thomson, who initially tipped me off to Hulmes’ lying after, he says, first going to the FBI. “They had to have spoken with him about this day back when they asked him to testify after your article. Armed with that info, Hulmes’ attorney, Brian McMonagle would have had a field day.”
McMonagle did not respond to requests for comment.
Williams has received minimal public criticism for his lackluster approach to criminal justice reform. Instead, the district attorney has been consumed by a bizarre and sordid feud with Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane involving pornographic emails and grand jury leaks. Williams, known for having an outsize ego, always runs toward scandal, and the local media has obliged by covering every twist and turn. Civil rights advocates and defense lawyers in Philadelphia, however, remain focused on Williams’ spotty track record on abusive police and prison guards, and his lack of concern for righting wrongful convictions.
Members of the District Attorney's Office had long known about the lying, and seemingly did nothing. Who in Williams’ office knew what, and when, is a key outstanding question—and the answer may help shed light on why he is being treated with kid gloves. Last year, Thomson filed a complaint with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, alleging that the District Attorney’s Office denied countless defendants their due process rights by allowing Hulmes to testify after he had admitted to perjury, singling out two supervisors who he says did nothing after he complained to them. The status of the investigation is unclear.
Multiple cases have been filed against Hulmes in federal court, and, according to Bridge, more than 500 convictions involving Hulmes might be thrown out.
Rowland’s case highlights the enormous latitude and weight given to a police officer’s version of the story, the ease with which some officers abuse that trust to lie, and the consequences for defendants whose freedom rests on convincing a jury that they are the ones telling the truth. In Philadelphia as elsewhere, impunity remains the norm.