In following the news of the Harvey Weinstein case, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, under the leadership of Larry Krasner, would fare in prosecuting a similarly rich and powerful defendant. As someone who has worked with public safety in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, I usually resist comparisons with New York, based on the sheer wealth of manpower afforded the District Attorney’s Offices encompassed within the city’s five boroughs — an especially big difference if considering, for example, the Bill Cosby case that brought such a courtroom drama to the smaller, suburban jurisdiction of Montgomery County.
But Philadelphia is Pennsylvania’s only first-class city, with over 1.5 million residents. It is important to measure our capabilities against our peers. Philadelphia had 974 rapes and 355 murders last year, as documented by the FBI, giving us one of the highest violent crime rates of any major city in America with a population of over a million. Therefore, Philadelphia should have a DA’s office equipped to handle not only a high volume of daily crimes but the inevitability of cases like Weinstein’s, which provide unique opportunities to achieve justice and demonstrate a commitment to equal and fair justice to the world.
A major case like Weinstein’s takes hundreds of interviews that piece together calendars and meetings, financial transactions, and matching locations over decades. After that is completed, a team of trial lawyers capable of beating a celebrity team of high-priced defense attorneys at their own game in a highly publicized event is needed.
While Philadelphia obviously lacks the resources of New York, with America’s largest police agency at its disposal, we were once known for having some of the nation’s most seasoned, respected prosecutors. So much so that the Philadelphia’s DA has often been a springboard to leadership in higher elected offices, as former Gov. Ed Rendell, Sen. Arlen Specter, and Justice Ronald Castille could attest.
When Krasner was elected, amid a wave of outside funding and strong anti-Trump sentiment, the capabilities of the office changed immediately. The week Krasner took office, he dismissed 31 veteran staffers. Krasner then ushered in a sea change in policy, such as dropping cash bail for certain crimes, which seemed to prioritize social justice over criminal justice (or advocating for victims of crime). All of this may or may not correlate to a rise in homicides that has emerged since Krasner’s election.
When many of a DA office’s trial-experienced prosecutors are fired or leave so rapidly, it raises questions about the office’s ability to handle its regular workload, much less a blockbuster case. Add to this that 18 of the 60 new assistant district attorneys recruited by Krasner reportedly failed the bar exam. Overall, this workforce does not bode well for taking on the robust, well-funded legal defense of someone like Weinstein. It’s hard for the Krasner administration to appear ready to prosecute organized, predatory criminals when it fails to charge a corrupt pharmacist arrested with $30,000 worth of Xanax, or forces a federal prosecutor to step in to appropriately charge a simple robbery and armed assault suspect.
There have also been concerning scandals: Krasner’s termination of the office’s victim services chief Tami Levin, replaced by campaign donor Movita Johnson-Harrell, who later plead guilty to theft, and the $160K-a-year hiring of his former business partner and creditor. A recently appointed senior adviser to his office was disbarred in Pennsylvania in 1993 and has faith-based and nonprofit affiliations with their own political interests. Such decisions cast a cloud over Krasner’s credibility and motivations.
In examining the Weinstein case, consider the psychological impact on victims of prosecuting sex crimes. Shepherding a victim through a process where they have to relive the most traumatizing, embarrassing moments of their life for over a year takes deep trust — a factor arguably of concern for this DA’s office.
Anyone following the office after Krasner’s election can wager on how Philadelphia would fare if a Weinstein-level case comes to town. It’s imperative for DA Krasner to weigh his sworn criminal justice responsibilities with as much, if not more, consideration than he gives to social justice. If not, Philadelphia’s voters have a responsibility to select as district attorney a prosecutor who can be trusted to deliver justice on the trickiest high-impact cases, without prioritizing their personal political narrative.
A. Benjamin Mannes is the former director in the Office of Investigations for the continent’s largest medical board, has served federal, municipal, and nongovernmental employers, and is a subject matter expert in security and criminal justice reform.