PHILADELPHIA (AP) – Seven years ago, prosecutors called James Drayton a ruthless drug dealer responsible for one of the city’s bloodiest drug wars, and vowed to put him and his crew away where they could never repeat their crimes.

That resolve never translated into a trial.

Last week, after years of delays, all charges against Drayton and six alleged members of his gang were dismissed when the state Supreme Court said prosecutors had violated the defendants’ rights to a speedy trial.

Drayton walked free on July 30 after nearly nine years behind bars. Five other defendants were released by Monday. The seventh remains jailed in state prison on an unrelated drug conviction.

The men had been charged with five murders.

The ruling was a stinging rebuke for District Attorney Lynne Abraham, whose office had delayed a trial for years while it unsuccessfully appealed to reinstate a dismissed organized crime charge.

Prosecutors insisted the appeals were legitimate, but Philadelphia Judge Benjamin Lerner wrote in 2002 that they were deliberately employing a “frivolous” strategy “whose sole effect was to keep these defendants in custody without a trial.”

Drayton’s attorney, Dennis J. Cogan, accused prosecutors of trying to put off defeat in a case with flimsy evidence.

“They were not confident in the case, so they were finding a way to keep them in jail as long as possible,” he said.

It’s not the first time the district attorney has been accused of being reluctant to drop a weak case.

The city agreed to pay $1.9 million last summer to settle claims that prosecutors ignored evidence that police had arrested the wrong men for a seven-person slaying known as “The Lex Street Massacre.” The suspects spent 18 months behind bars before a judge ordered the district attorney to either give them a trial immediately or drop the charges. Four different men later pleaded guilty to the murders.

The chief of the district attorney’s appeals unit, Hugh J. Burns Jr., rejected any comparison between the two cases, and denied that prosecutors had been trying to keep Drayton and his co-defendants in jail on a weak case.

“This was no situation in which we were keeping people in jail because we were stubborn,” Burns said. “The notion that we were proceeding without any evidence is nuts.”

The charges stemmed from a wave of violence that struck the city’s impoverished Mantua section in 1995. Dozens of young men died over just a few months as rival gangs battled for control of street corners.

In the worst of the slayings, four men were killed when gunmen hunting for a rival charged through a house firing automatic weapons.

Police vowed a crackdown after a 17-year-old was shot dead while returning home from a memorial service for his murdered 18-year-old cousin.

Detectives made arrests and the killings subsided. In 1997, prosecutors charged that much of the violence was the work of a small gang led by Drayton.

First arrested in November 1995, he was ultimately charged with six murders, but prosecutors had trouble making the cases stick.

One homicide charge was dropped in 1997. A jury deliberated for less than two hours in 1998 before acquitting Drayton in a second killing that occurred a block from police headquarters.

Abraham spokeswoman Cathie Abookire said the office was concerned that a jury would also reject other murder charges too, including an allegation that Drayton led the group that committed the 1995 quadruple slaying – unless the men were prosecuted as a group under the state’s Corrupt Organizations Act.

“We had virtually no chance of putting together a case against them on an individual basis,” she said. “The best chance we had to present a solid case to a jury was to prosecute them as the organized gang that they were.”

Abookire said that even in hindsight, Abraham believed the strategy was correct.

It is unclear what the lasting effect of the ruling will be in the Mantua neighborhood. Whatever is future is, Drayton won’t be part of it, his attorney said.

“He has left the state,” Cogan said. “He served a long time in jail. He wants to start his life over.”

AP-ES-08-06-04 0622EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.