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Whose side is Philly District Attorney Larry Krasner really on? | Opinion

Does Larry Krasner’s concept of doing justice include taking into consideration and giving weight to the concerns of crime victims and their families?

Larry Krasner
Larry KrasnerRead moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

On May 5, Mike Poeng was washing his car in front of his store at 54th and Spruce when he was approached by Jovaun Patterson. Brandishing an AK-47 rifle, Patterson announced: “This is a robbery. Go inside.”

But Poeng’s wife and children were in the store. Fearing that Patterson was going to murder him and his family, Poeng resisted using nothing more than his bare hands and pure guts. His valiant efforts ended when, as caught on surveillance video, Patterson shot him and fled the scene.

Police rushed Poeng to the emergency room where he died and then was resuscitated by means of open heart massage. The high-powered rifle round had severed his femoral artery, caused massive internal damage, and left a “fist-size” exit wound in his right buttock. Poeng spent about a month and a half in the hospital and now lies in bed at a relative’s home for much of his days. He can’t walk without assistance because of his injuries and is unable to work.

According to a West Philadelphia resident who spoke to police after the shooting, the night before the attack, Patterson took his AK-47 to a neighbor’s house where he said that “he was tired of [Poeng’s] mouth and something had to be done about him.” This declaration of intent combined with the video of Patterson shooting Poeng as well as Poeng’s devastating wounds and near death amply justified the attempted-murder charge filed against the shooter.

But then the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, under the leadership of progressive champion Larry Krasner, dropped the attempted-murder charge and allowed Patterson to plead guilty to the far less serious charges of aggravated assault and robbery and agreed to an absurdly low sentence of 3½ to 10 years in prison.

Under Pennsylvania law, crime victims have the right to be apprised of plea deals and to be heard at sentencing. Nevertheless, the DA’s Office never notified Poeng of either this sweetheart plea deal or the sentencing that proceeded without his presence or input.

When the news media exposed this shameful outcome, Ben Waxman, the DA’s spokesman, defended Patterson’s sentence as “wholly appropriate” and ludicrously argued that the guilty plea to aggravated assault instead of attempted murder “was also wholly appropriate as the video evidence depicted a struggle involving the gun prior to its discharge.

In addition to bypassing the clear-cut evidence proving attempted murder, Waxman’s rationalization failed to explain why the DA’s Office had not notified Poeng of the plea deal and the sentencing. In this regard, the shoddy and unlawful treatment of Poeng by the DA’s Office was not an isolated incident.

As the public criticism and media scrutiny intensified, the DA’s Office resorted to the time-honored governmental strategy of throwing a powerless underling under the bus. So it was that Waxman claimed that the assistant district attorney assigned to the Patterson case “made two mistakes. First, she did not contact the victim prior to the plea, which is against DAO policy as well as state law. Second, she did not get authorization from her supervisor to convey the plea offer.”

To those of us familiar with the criminal justice system and Larry Krasner’s management of his office, Waxman’s explanation is simply preposterous.

When Krasner took office, he ordered a mass firing of 31 veteran prosecutors to root out and radically change the office’s long-standing law-and-order culture. This purge not only destroyed the professional lives of the many good and dedicated prosecutors who were unceremoniously fired without warning; it also traumatized and terrified those who remained on the payroll. As intended, it brought the office to heel and left the survivors afraid of their own shadows and fearful of doing anything that did not meet with the approval of their new master.

The point here is that, after Krasner’s brutal mass firings, it is impossible to believe that any lowly assistant district attorney would dare act to orchestrate something like the Patterson giveaway show without first fully briefing supervisors and obtaining their express authorization and approval. Moreover, the office’s cover story doesn’t explain how the purportedly mistaken plea deal actually made it through the pre-sentencing process and sentencing itself without the knowledge and complicity of DA’s Office supervisors.

Of course, one way to clear up this matter would be to allow the news media access to the ADA and her supervisor. But no such access has been granted. Why?

Even more important, the neglect of Mike Poeng is by no means an isolated incident.

For example, in May, Krasner’s office declared the murder conviction of the killer of Antwine Jackson to be “an egregious example of police and prosecutorial misconduct” and agreed to let the defendant go free without notifying Jackson’s next of kin. Krasner’s office later claimed that it had been unable to locate the family. But a reporter for this newspaper had no difficulty whatsoever in contacting the decedent’s sister. So why couldn’t the DA’s Office do the same?

Similarly, Krasner’s office never notified Steven Bernstein, the brother of another murder victim, that it was reducing the death sentence of his brother’s killer to life in prison. And, in the murder case of Philadelphia Police Sgt. Robert Wilson, Krasner’s office didn’t notify the family of a plea deal until so late in the process that any discussion would have been pointless.

Then we have the murder of real estate developer Sean Schellenger, who perished after literally being stabbed in the back. His assailant was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. According to Linda Schellenger, the victim’s mother, Krasner himself “manipulated” her when he told her that she need not attend a hearing in the case because “nothing would happen.” But, when the family nevertheless went to this supposedly inconsequential hearing, it watched in surprise and consternation as Krasner’s office agreed to reduce the first-degree murder charge to third degree.

All of this raises a key question: Does Larry Krasner’s concept of doing justice include taking into consideration and giving weight to the devastation, suffering, and concerns of crime victims and their families? Do these innocents have any rights in his criminal justice system? Or does he consider them and their concerns to be of little or no importance as he pursues his quest to radically transform the DA’s Office?

In short, whose side is he on?

George Parry is a former federal and state prosecutor who practices law in Philadelphia. He blogs at and may be reached by email at