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Federal judge: Philly DA Larry Krasner’s office misled court while trying to free a man from death row

U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg said Krasner’s office didn't sufficiently review a case it asked him to overturn, and misled him about its contact with the victims' relatives.

District Attorney Larry Krasner, opens up the press conference and introduces speakers to update the community about the recent shooting near Shepard Recreation Center, in Philadelphia, Pa., on Wednesday, August, 17, 2022.
District Attorney Larry Krasner, opens up the press conference and introduces speakers to update the community about the recent shooting near Shepard Recreation Center, in Philadelphia, Pa., on Wednesday, August, 17, 2022.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

A federal judge has found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office provided incomplete and misleading information as it sought to overturn the death sentence of a man who killed an East Mount Airy couple inside their home in 1984, then shut off the heat and left their infant daughter inside to die.

In a blunt opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Mitchell Goldberg said top prosecutor Larry Krasner’s administration had failed to conduct a careful review of Robert Wharton’s case before asking Goldberg to vacate the death penalty and order Wharton to serve a life sentence instead. Goldberg said the review by prosecutors was “patently deficient” for failing to mention that Wharton had previously been convicted of violently trying to escape from a City Hall courtroom.

In addition, Goldberg found that Krasner’s office had provided a “false” account of its interactions with the victims’ relatives, including their daughter, Lisa Hart-Newman, who survived the attack. Goldberg said prosecutors filed documents suggesting that the family of Ferne and Bradley Hart had consented to a request to vacate Wharton’s death sentence, which the judge said was “not true.”

As a result, Goldberg admonished two top supervisors in Krasner’s office, Nancy Winkelman and Paul George, who were involved in seeking to overturn Wharton’s death sentence, saying they violated federal rules of procedure in a manner that was “egregious” and “exceptional.”

And though he declined to impose specific penalties against them — or levy financial penalties on the District Attorney’s Office, which he also said violated court rules — he ordered that Krasner personally write apology letters to four of the Harts’ relatives, including their daughter.

Prosecutors “directed representations to the Court that the Office had ‘carefully reviewed the facts’ when in fact that did not occur,” Goldberg wrote, adding: “If the District Attorney’s Office files [documents] on a misleading presentation of the facts, it attempts to misuse the Court’s power.”

Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors “strongly disagree with Judge Goldberg’s ruling and are currently evaluating our options.”

“District Attorney Krasner and the District Attorney’s Office fully support ADA Nancy Winkelman and ADA Paul George’s official conduct and professional ethics, including in their handling of this case,” she added.

The opinion was the latest chapter in a yearslong appeals process in Wharton’s case.

Wharton, now 59, was convicted along with a coconspirator in the 1984 strangulation and drowning deaths of the Harts inside their East Mount Airy home. The DA’s Office had consistently opposed Wharton’s attempts to have his death sentence overturned but changed course in 2019 after Krasner — an opponent of capital punishment — took office.

Goldberg at the time said the DA’s Office had not provided an adequate explanation for its change in stance, and he asked the Attorney General’s Office to provide materials he said the DA’s Office wasn’t sharing as it asked Goldberg to order Wharton removed from death row.

Among the materials the Attorney General’s Office found were documents detailing Wharton’s past escape attempts — which prosecutors, including Winkelman and George, later told Goldberg they were unaware of. In his opinion this week, Goldberg called it “unreasonable” for the DA’s Office to say it had conducted a careful review of Wharton’s case without knowing about that history.

“Wharton’s escape attempt resulted in a conviction that appears on his criminal history, which can be found simply by typing Wharton’s name into Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System Web Portal to reveal a conviction for ‘ESCAPE,’” Goldberg wrote. “Yet two supervisors on the committee that recommended conceding Wharton’s [appeal] testified that they were unaware of the escape attempt at the time and did not know whether the District Attorney, who approved the concession, was aware of it.”

Goldberg went on to criticize prosecutors for what he called their “numerous and wide-ranging explanations” about the office’s conduct in the appeal. He also said prosecutors hadn’t considered that failing to provide him all the relevant facts could imperil his ability to make a fully informed decision about Wharton’s fate.

And he said prosecutors misled him by filing documents suggesting their new position in Wharton’s case had been communicated to — and supported by — the Harts’ relatives. The decision was only communicated to one family member, Goldberg said, and others — including Hart-Newman, who survived the attack — were “vehemently opposed” to it.

“[T]he Court finds that the District Attorney’s Office’s statement regarding its communication with the victims’ family was false and yet another representation to the Court made after an inquiry that was not reasonable under the circumstances,” Goldberg wrote.

The judge said Krasner must send his apology letter to the Harts’ relatives — and file it in court — within 30 days. And he said any future proceedings before him “must be accompanied by a full, balanced explanation of facts.”