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Two judges have sparred with the Philly DA’s office recently over questions about old murder convictions

The developments — which prosecutors dispute — have offered a degree of pushback as DA Larry Krasner’s office has sought to free one man from death row and overturn another man’s murder conviction.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in a file photo.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in a file photo.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Judges in state and federal courts in recent weeks have raised questions about whether prosecutors under District Attorney Larry Krasner included incomplete or even misleading information in court documents seeking to remove one man from death row and overturn another man’s murder conviction.

The developments — which prosecutors dispute — have offered a degree of pushback to the post-conviction work of Krasner’s office, one of the most aggressive offices in the country in seeking to overturn cases it has viewed as flawed or marred by misconduct.

Jane Roh, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office, defended the office’s conduct in each of the two recent cases. And though Krasner did not comment, he has frequently touted the 28 exonerations his office has helped secure as a signature achievement — while casting judicial resistance as an unsurprising byproduct of dealing with those invested in the status quo.

The more pointed of the two recent episodes unfolded in federal court last week, when U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg said in an opinion that prosecutors may have breached their “duty of candor” while supporting a bid to vacate the death sentence of Robert Wharton.

Wharton, now 59, was convicted in the 1984 strangulation and drowning deaths of an East Mount Airy couple, Ferne and Bradley Hart, inside their home. The DA’s Office for years had opposed Wharton’s attempts to overturn his sentence, 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 about-face, and he went on to ask the Attorney General’s Office to dig up materials he said the DA’s Office wasn’t sharing.

In his opinion filed last Wednesday, Goldberg slammed the DA’s Office for withholding that information, which he said related to Wharton’s previous attempts to escape from custody. And he said the DA’s Office had provided a misleading account about its “minimal and woefully deficient” interactions with the victims’ surviving relatives in recent years — including a failure to speak with Lisa Hart, the victims’ daughter, who was seven months old when Wharton and his coconspirator killed her parents, then shut off the heat in their house and left her inside.

The combination of those issues, Goldberg wrote, could have led him to rule on Wharton’s fate without knowing key aspects of the case.

“It is likely that the District Attorney’s Office failed to disclose all relevant information and provided other information that was misleading, and thus was not candid with this Court,” he wrote.

Roh, the DA’s spokesperson, said: “We categorically reject any implication that we were anything less than candid with the court.”

Goldberg — who has been at odds with the DA’s Office before — declined to vacate Wharton’s death sentence, and said he would schedule a hearing for prosecutors to respond to his findings.

Roh alluded to the contentious history in an email, adding that other federal judges had accepted similar requests by prosecutors for death penalty relief. “In our opinion, this particular judge’s pattern of dealing with these types of cases is part of a larger pattern he has demonstrated, and is disappointing,” Roh said.

Meanwhile, in Common Pleas Court last month, Judge Scott DiClaudio was poised to overturn a murder conviction that prosecutors have described as badly flawed. But the judge said he would not do so until one of his colleagues first considered a thorny legal issue involving Krasner’s finances.

Krasner’s office had told DiClaudio it believed Lavar Brown — convicted of participating in the 2003 robbery and fatal shooting of a North Philadelphia Rite Aid manager — deserved a new trial due to a host of past prosecutorial misconduct.

But attorneys for the widow of the victim, Michael Richardson, filed documents in the case accusing Krasner of a conflict of interest — saying the DA’s financial disclosure reports show that during his first year in office, Krasner received income from two of his former law partners who had previously been involved in Brown’s case. And the widow’s lawyers contended that Krasner’s office provided conflicting information about when he received those payments.

DiClaudio suggested in court that he was leaning toward vacating the conviction. But he said questions about when and how Krasner was paid by those lawyers — and whether that constituted a conflict — should be resolved first.

“I think we need the answer,” DiClaudio said.

Without explaining himself in court, he then passed the issue off to another judge to decide. The case will now be handled by Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson, who scheduled a hearing for next month. (Whatever the verdict, Brown will remain in prison for a separate murder conviction.)

Roh said any allegations of improper financial dealings “are untrue” and that the payments were properly disclosed. She said Krasner in 2018 received a deferred fee from a case he and a partner had handled years before Krasner took office. In another instance, she said, a former law partner wrote Krasner a final check on Dec. 30, 2017, but it wasn’t deposited until the next business day.

Lawrence Otter, a Bucks County attorney who specializes in issues including financial disclosure reports, and who reviewed the filings in Brown’s case at The Inquirer’s request, said he found the argument from the victims’ attorneys unconvincing.

Private lawyers who shut down their practices to take public office, as Krasner did, often have past payments arrive after they’re sworn in, Otter said — something he views as normal, and not the grounds for a disqualifying conflict in this case.

“There’s nothing there,” said Otter. “It’s that simple.”

Bronson, the judge now handling the case, has not yet given an indication how or when he might decide on the conflict issue, or whether to grant prosecutors’ request to vacate Brown’s conviction.