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Philly judges block DA Krasner's deals for juvenile lifers

It could be a significant hurdle for Krasner, who campaigned on a pledge to reduce incarceration and has ordered his staff to make plea offers "below the bottom end" of the sentencing guidelines for most nonviolent offenses.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner listens to a question during a news conference.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner listens to a question during a news conference.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

District Attorney Larry Krasner has made a commitment to seek shorter sentences for people convicted of crimes in part by offering deals at or below the minimum sentencing guidelines. But it has not been clear whether Philadelphia judges will go along with his vision.

That's being tested in the cases of close to 180 juvenile lifers awaiting new sentences in Philadelphia under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found automatic life-without-parole for minors unconstitutional.

In a number of those cases, Krasner has offered new deals making the lifers immediately eligible for parole — but the judges handling those cases  have begun rejecting some of the deals.

That's left some observers wondering about the fate not only of the juvenile lifers, but also of Krasner's progressive vision on sentencing reform.

"This court will not impose the negotiated sentence," Judge Kathryn Streeter-Lewis said in a status hearing in early March for Avery Talmadge. The District Attorney's Office and Talmadge had agreed on a 22-years-to-life deal, which Assistant District Attorney Chesley Lightsey said took into account Talmadge's excellent record in prison and the facts of the case, a fatal 1996 street fight that she said could have been classified as third-degree murder, which carries a 20- to 40-year sentence.

Streeter-Lewis also rejected a 21-years-to-life deal for Phillip Pratt, who shot and killed another 17-year-old boy in the street, and a 25-years-to-life agreement for German Cruz, who shot another teen in the head "execution-style." All three cases await resolution.

In all other proposed deals that came across her docket, she asked lawyers to submit briefs called "concise statements of the case," which typically are drawn up in advance of contested hearings but are not negotiated agreements.

So far, Judge Jeffrey Minehart has approved the negotiations that came across his docket, including one for Donnell Drinks, who in 1991 stabbed a man named Darryl Huntley to death in a robbery and burglary he planned in conjunction with a Philadelphia police officer.

Minehart also accepted a 28-years-to-life deal for Joseph Jones, who in 1990 shot and killed a 24-year-old man, Eric Kitchen. Three years earlier, when Jones was 12, he was kidnapped, forced to sell drugs and nearly killed, before he escaped and called for help. He has significant mental health and intellectual disabilities, according to the court proceedings, and spent nine years in solitary confinement. The hope is he will be released to a residential treatment facility.

However, Judge Barbara McDermott — who has in a handful of other cases accepted deals for juvenile lifers negotiated by Krasner's administration — has begun to reject some of the agreements she's reviewed.

One was for John Blount, who shot and killed two men as a teenager in 1989. The district attorney offered 29 years to life. On March 26, McDermott rejected that deal and imposed a sentence of 35 years to life, the minimum set by current sentencing law for a first-degree murder by a juvenile. The other was for Omar Dennis, who according to Daily News reports from 1994 shot and killed a man who'd beaten him in a "fair fight." McDermott rejected a 24-years-to-life deal and imposed a 28-year minimum instead.

Krasner's office declined to comment. Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association, found himself in the unfamiliar position of defending the district attorney's stance. "The sentences proposed by the District Attorney's Office manifest a thoughtful, careful reflection of their need to balance societal interests with appropriate punishment … and a recognition of the dangers caused by over-incarceration."

Still, it's not just judges dealing with juvenile lifer cases who don't see eye-to-eye with Krasner.

Last week, Amy Campbell, the sister of Ryan Kelly, a Port Richmond man who was robbed and murdered in 2015, posted a public plea on Facebook decrying a deal she said the district attorney offered to David Ramos, Kelly's shooter, for 22½ to 44½ years in prison. "Judge Steven Geroff dismissed this deal, because the proposed sentence was far too low for the crime committed," she wrote.

Despite the vast size of Philadelphia's criminal justice system, only about 2,500 cases per year go to trial. Four times that many are settled through negotiated pleas.

Each one of those requires judicial approval. Experts say it's extraordinarily rare for judges to reject such deals.

"It's probably less than 1 percent of cases," said David Rudovsky, a defense lawyer and University of Pennsylvania law professor. "The judge certainly has that power — which we may see more of. It's hard to predict."

It's not atypical for an incoming administration to face an unusual number of rejected deals, said Ron Wright, a professor of criminal law at Wake Forest University.

"It's pretty common for newcomers to the courthouse to have to work out their relationships with the veterans that are there," he said, but in many cases, the district attorney can outmaneuver reluctant judges. "The prosecutor has so many more options for getting things done, they can normally work their way around a judge's objection. The prosecutor completely controls the selection of charges."

When Ed Rendell took over the office in 1978 after campaigning for tougher sentences, he occasionally ran into the reverse problem. "The only issue was when the judge went ahead on his own and sentenced the defendant to something far too lenient," he said.

But given that Krasner recently ordered his staff to overhaul its practices for charging defendants — and to make plea offers "below the bottom end" of the sentencing guidelines for most nonviolent offenses — it could come up more often.

"If you strike a deal within the sentencing guidelines, it's very unusual for the judge to reject it at that point. If the deal is below the bottom of the sentencing guidelines, that's creating this possibility," Rendell said.

There's another reason this may be a particular issue for Krasner, said Douglas Berman, a law professor and sentencing expert at Ohio State University.

"I suspect that phenomenon will be coming up more and more," he said, "especially when, as seems to be the case in Krasner's situation, judges have reason to believe going in that the prosecutor is not being nearly as aggressive as most judges expect and have experienced a prosecutor being."

He said one reason rejected agreements are rare is that judges often assume the parties are more familiar with the case than they are, and trust they've weighed the facts. "I think the Krasner story, if this is a continuing problem, will be based in the level of trust in that adversarial process."