Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly DA’s handling of an exoneration sparked outrage from a federal judge

A federal judge accused DA Larry Krasner of "forum shopping," but a group of 33 prominent litigators and legal scholars said his office exemplified "the height of professional responsibility."

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry KrasnerRead moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Last October, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge agreed to vacate the 31-year-old conviction of Antonio Martinez, who lawyers said was subjected to prosecutorial misconduct and a “stunning violation of his constitutional rights,” resulting in his wrongful conviction for a 1985 double homicide.

That meant Martinez, 73, was free. But it also short-circuited a parallel process underway in federal court, where U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg had scheduled a hearing for November to question the trial prosecutor about the misconduct claims.

On Thursday, Goldberg, of Pennsylvania’s Eastern District, issued a memorandum decrying the maneuver by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit and ordering it to start submitting status reports in similar cases. Goldberg said that the DA’s Office has a “duty of candor” to the court and that its “discretion cannot be used as a mechanism to forum shop for the quickest result without full disclosure to the federal court.”

The CIU, more active under DA Larry Krasner than during any prior administration, has handled 18 exonerations, at times encountering pushback from the judiciary.

Goldberg has been at odds with Krasner’s office before, most notably in denying the DA’s request to vacate the death penalty for Robert Wharton in the 1984 murder of an East Mount Airy couple, Ferne and Bradley Hart. Goldberg asked the Attorney General’s Office to weigh in, and that office is expected to step in during an evidentiary hearing set for next week.

In the Martinez matter, the DA’s Office argued in court filings that the end-around was not by design. Martinez’s case had been languishing for months in state court without any sign of progress, according to the lawyers, when the October court date was assigned with just a few weeks’ notice.

» READ MORE: Philly man, exonerated at 73, faced ‘stunning violation of constitutional rights,’ lawyers say

Goldberg appeared to stop short of saying the CIU’s actions were improper but said it took a route that was “clearly discouraged” and “strongly disfavored.”

“While I will not impose sanctions, an admonishment of the District Attorney, as set forth in this opinion, is appropriate,” he wrote. He said he would require the Philadelphia DA to submit status reports on future cases, adding, “I typically do not impose requirements of this nature on counsel, but such oversight of the District Attorney is now unfortunately warranted.”

Krasner, in a statement Friday, defended the CIU’s work and noted that the judge had, in the end, not made a finding that its actions lacked candor.

“In my opinion, it is no surprise that when you do the work of undoing institutional wrongs, there is resistance from people who want to make excuses for those wrongs,” he said. “On behalf of all Philadelphians, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office will not be cowed or deterred from our duty to seek justice in the future.”

A group of 33 prominent lawyers and legal scholars submitted a brief to the court arguing that Krasner’s office, as well as Martinez’s lawyer, had acted within its duty.

“Especially with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why the court would feel aggrieved,” they wrote.

But, they argued, in rectifying a 31-year-old injustice, the lawyers involved “were actually exemplifying the height of professional responsibility and repairing a miscarriage of justice.”