Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

U.S. Attorney McSwain assails DA Krasner’s handling of defendant linked to shootings of 2 children

The latest flare-up between the two men only served to highlight the unusual – and messily public – souring of the relationship between the city's two top prosecutors during their respective first years in office.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (left); U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain (right)
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (left); U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain (right)Read moreFile Photos

In the latest salvo in the feud between the region’s two top prosecutors, U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain on Monday accused Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner of enabling separate shootings last month that critically injured one child and left another dead.

McSwain asserted that city prosecutors had failed to fight hard enough to detain 29-year-old Francisco Ortiz — whom police have linked to both shootings — when he was arrested in an unrelated case this year.

Instead, the U.S. attorney said in a statement, Krasner’s office consented to lowering Ortiz’s bail and paved the way for his release just two months before the attacks that injured 11-month-old Yazeem Jenkins and killed 2-year-old Nikolette Rivera during the weekend of Oct. 19-20.

“The community is united in its condemnation of these heinous acts — but we must be honest about what enabled them to happen,” McSwain’s statement read. “It is the misguided policies of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner that led to these heartbreaking tragedies.”

Ortiz remains in custody, charged with shooting Jenkins while he was in a car with his father and stepmother in Hunting Park. Police have said Ortiz provided the AK-47 rifle that killed Rivera a day later in Kensington while her mother held her in her arms. He has not been charged in that case.

It’s not altogether surprising that Ortiz’s high-profile prosecution has become the latest flash point in the curdled relationship between McSwain and Krasner, prosecutors with vastly different views on the criminal justice system.

A spokesperson for Krasner did not immediately respond to McSwain’s attack Monday. But the district attorney has dismissed past criticism from the U.S. attorney as “political grandstanding” and “false assertion in the best tradition of the man who appointed [him] — Donald J. Trump.”

Krasner, a career defense attorney, was elected in 2017 vowing to upend a criminal justice system in the city he has described as racist, broken, and corrupt. Since then, he has pushed to deemphasize low-level offenses, charged fewer defendants, and pushed to end monetary bail for certain misdemeanors and nonviolent felony offenses.

Meanwhile, McSwain, a Republican appointee, has ramped up his office’s violent crime caseload in one of the most “tough-on-crime” Justice Departments in decades. He has repeatedly questioned Krasner’s motives, accused him of abdicating his duty as a prosecutor, and blamed him for a rising rates of gun violence and homicide in the city.

In February, McSwain filed federal charges against an AK-47-toting gunman who nearly killed a store owner in West Philadelphia — a case Krasner’s office already had prosecuted. The U.S. attorney described the 3½-to-10-year sentence the district attorney offered that defendant in a plea bargain as a “sweetheart deal” and a “miscarriage of justice.”

Then, after a gunman opened fire on police in Tioga during a 7½-hour standoff in August, McSwain called a news conference the next day and accused Krasner of promoting “lawlessness” and a “culture of disrespect” in the city that had indirectly led to the violence.

The district attorney shot back, saying: “It is a familiar bit of opportunistic politics, and I will not dignify it with a detailed response.”

McSwain’s critique Monday of Krasner’s handling of Ortiz centered on the man’s arrest earlier this year on an illegal gun charge unrelated to last month’s shootings. The attack came three days after The Inquirer reported that an assistant district attorney in July had not opposed Ortiz’s ultimately successful efforts to have his bail reduced — a decision that led to his release.

Ortiz’s attorney had urged Municipal Court Judge Craig Washington to lower her client’s bail from the $100,000 that originally had been set to the $3,000 to $12,000 suggested by guidelines established by the pretrial services division. And Assistant District Attorney Danielle Derohannesian said if the judge were “so inclined to lower” bail, her office would only object “to the bail being lower than $50,000,” according to a transcript of the proceeding.

Washington agreed to cut it to that amount, and Ortiz was released from a city jail that day.

In his statement Monday, McSwain asserted that had city prosecutors fought to maintain the higher bail, Ortiz still might have been in custody at the time Jenkins and Rivera were shot. It should have been an easy call, McSwain said, given Ortiz’s lengthy rap sheet, which includes prior felony convictions for weapons possession that had sent him to prison for a decade.

“Ortiz never should have been on the street to begin with,” McSwain wrote. “It is not the job of the district attorney to give Francisco Ortiz a helping hand. It is the job of the district attorney to pursue justice and prosecute dangerous, violent felons like Ortiz to the fullest extent of the law.”

Krasner’s office did not respond to The Inquirer’s requests last week to discuss its stance on Ortiz’s bail.

Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.