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Mothers of homicide victims testify during first day of hearings in effort to impeach DA Larry Krasner

Mothers shared the grief of losing a child to homicide, and expressed frustration with how law enforcement, from police to the DA's Office, handled their cases.

Nakisha Billa during her testimony in front of the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order on Thursday. Billa lost her son Domonic to gun violence.
Nakisha Billa during her testimony in front of the Pennsylvania House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order on Thursday. Billa lost her son Domonic to gun violence.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Philadelphians who were recently victims of, or lost loved ones to, violent crime in the city offered emotional testimony Thursday at a hearing called by a Pennsylvania House committee seeking evidence to impeach District Attorney Larry Krasner.

In person and through prerecorded video, mothers shared the grief of losing a child to homicide and expressed frustration with how law enforcement responded in the aftermath, from how the investigations were handled by the Police Department to how the cases were prosecuted by the DA’s Office.

“I am here because of the lawlessness that continues to plague the city. This is not a political stance. This is a stance from a mother whose whole world has been turned upside down since the death of my son,” said Nakisha Billa, whose 21-year-old son Domonic was fatally shot last year.

Thursday was the first of two days of hearings in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard, and the result of an ongoing impeachment effort being led by Republican legislators in Harrisburg who have criticized Krasner, a Democrat, for his reform-oriented policies. They’ve said the DA’s practices have contributed to the city’s gun violence crisis.

Krasner has denied that and defended his policies. In a statement Thursday, he criticized the committee for not opening the hearing to the public, and said the “trauma and grief expressed by co-victims and survivors at today’s hearing, many of whom my staff and I have personally met, was heartbreaking.

“I again request that the Select Committee allow me, the target of their inquiry, the opportunity to speak and answer their questions in a fully public and accessible forum,” he said.

A group of protesters gathered outside the hearings in support of the top prosecutor Thursday morning, calling the investigation of his office an antidemocratic attempt to erase the voice of Philadelphians who voted for him.

The hearing began with opening remarks from State Rep. John Lawrence, a Republican and chair of the committee, who painted a dark picture of the city’s violent crime crisis. He read a list of crime statistics and news headlines about recent assaults, including the Tuesday shooting of five teens after a Roxborough High School football scrimmage.

In light of the city’s crisis, Lawrence said, “it would be dereliction of duty if we did not take action.”

The families who testified were chosen based on information they’d submitted to the committee. Many of their criticisms focused on investigative practices not handled by the DA’s Office but by the Police Department, like evidence collection, communication from detectives, and lack of arrests.

One mother spoke of her anger when her daughter’s killer was released on bail, and how she was not kept apprised of the case’s proceedings by the prosecutor. Many shared a sentiment that the DA Office’s drop in conviction rate for some crimes, like gun possession charges, has contributed to offenders having no fear of consequences.

In response to critiques of police, Lawrence said the group was not just looking at the DA’s Office, but all elected officials with responsibilities to handle crime.

“If individuals need to be held accountable, we will not hesitate to do so,” he said.

Critics of the committee, including Krasner, have pointed to state Republican’s refusal to pass gun-safety measures, which they believe could have a direct impact on the city’s violence crisis.

“None of them have proposed solutions to address the public health crisis of gun violence,” State Rep. Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia Democrat, said of his GOP colleagues.

Rabb joined a group of about 50 people in the courtyard outside the hearing Thursday to show support of Krasner and to protest the committee’s work. Touting signs that read “You Can’t Impeach Us,” and wearing shirts that said “Count Every Vote,” protesters said the impeachment effort was undemocratic and an attempt to erase the voice of Philadelphians who voted overwhelmingly to reelect Krasner to a second term last year.

“Impeachment cannot be a political weapon just because it’s the people you don’t like,” said Chris Kimmenez, executive director of Healing Communities PA, an organization that supports people returning from or at risk of incarceration.

There was even a full circus present — a juggler on stilts, acrobats, people dressed as a zebra and elephant, and a three-piece band — to further emphasize their belief that the hearings were a “disenfranchisement circus.”

The GOP-controlled House moved largely along party lines in June to investigate the possibility of impeaching Krasner. The next month, the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order was formed. And in August, it issued a subpoena seeking documents as part of its bid to investigate Krasner’s office.

Krasner responded by calling the committee illegal, politically motivated, and an effort to oust a locally elected official. He initially said he would not produce documents in response to its request, and said some of what the committee sought — including the disclosure of grand jury materials — would require his office to break the law in order to comply.

His office then filed a petition in Commonwealth Court, seeking to block the subpoena and again calling it improper. Weeks later, the House voted 162 to 38 to hold Krasner in contempt — with 10 Philadelphia Democrats voting in support of the measure.

Krasner has responded by continuing to speak out against the probe, holding rallies with legislators and supporters and defending his office during interviews in the press.

Final testimony came from legal expert Bruce Antkowiak, who spoke of Pennsylvania’s grand jury laws and court procedures. Krasner said Antkowiak’s statements validated his position on the illegality of the committee’s probe, and “undermines the suggestion that our office has done anything outside of the law or unethical in our prosecution of this matter or in our policies and use of discretion.”

“Today, it wasn’t about him,” said State Rep. Amen Brown, a Philadelphia Democrat and member of the committee. “It was about the victims letting their voices be heard.”

Billa, the only mother to testify in person, said the city’s ongoing gun violence crisis has compounded the trauma of losing her son and has made her want to leave Philadelphia, where she’s lived all her life.

Jennifer Meleski, whose 24-year-old son Charles Maude, was killed in Port Richmond last year, spoke of her frustrations with the detectives on his case and what she described as little-to-no communication throughout the investigation — a criticism shared by other mothers.

She personally gathered video footage from residents and businesses near the scene of where Maude was shot, she said, after detectives did not.

“I feel like nobody really cared about him,” Meleski said in a prerecorded interview.

State Rep. Martina White, a Northeast Philadelphia Republican, observed the testimony and said Krasner should be impeached.

“It is time that [Krasner] really pays attention to what the people of Philadelphia want. They want criminals held accountable, and they want it to start now,” White said.

On Friday, the committee is expected to hear from two more people: the executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, and the head of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association.