Since being elected to office, District Attorney Larry Krasner has been receiving well-deserved praise from criminal justice reformers and activists throughout the country.
Krasner, who campaigned on a promise of a new vision of prosecution, has implemented swift reforms in his first six months in office, including instructing prosecutors not to seek cash bail for a slew of nonviolent offenses, instructing prosecutors to share with judges the cost of incarceration during sentencing, and developing a comprehensive "do not call" list of tainted cops. When it comes to policies toward nonviolent offenses, Larry Krasner is fulfilling all his campaign promises.
However, when it comes to the death penalty, District Attorney Larry Krasner sounds a lot different than candidate Larry Krasner.
As a candidate, Krasner's position on when he would seek the death penalty was pretty clear: Never. According to the boldface type on Krasner's own campaign website, "Exercising his discretion as District Attorney, Larry will never seek the death sentence."
A few days after his inauguration, Krasner changed his tone. When asked in an interview about the issue, Krasner's response was, "You never want to say never."
It's possible that Krasner's differing answers don't signal a change in his policy, and that he has simply added nuance to avoid legal trouble and maintain his discretion. As Max Marin of Philadelphia Weekly noted, the Florida Supreme Court required a progressive state attorney to at least consider the death penalty in every capital case. According to Marin, "Sources in the Philly DAO worry that a similar scenario could unfold should a Republican succeed in ousting Wolf, who is up for reelection this year."
But now it seems that Krasner is going to use the death penalty just like his predecessors — as a tool to get plea deals.
In March 2015, Robert Wilson III, a 30-year-old officer and eight-year veteran of the force, was shot and killed when he responded to an attempted robbery of GameStop at North Philadelphia. Carlton Hipps, 31, and Ramone Williams, 27, were arrested and charged with the attempted robbery and murder.
The prosecution of the case started before Krasner was elected, but before the trial began, the defense argued that the death penalty should be off the table in this case because the death penalty is applied in Pennsylvania in a racially discriminatory and arbitrary matter. The prosecution responded that the case includes enough aggravating factors to convince a jury to return a death sentence.
Last summer, a judge gave the green light to the prosecution to seek the death penalty. Krasner had the option to continue this line of prosecution or use his discretion to pursue life without parole, the minimum sentence in Pennsylvania for a murder charge.
On Monday, the two defendants agreed to a plea deal. In exchange for a confession, the prosecutors will not seek the death penalty and the two will serve a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Technically, Krasner did not seek the death penalty. He just used it as leverage.
So does that mean he is living up to his campaign promise?
Not so much.
In the press conference following the sentencing hearing, Krasner was asked if he would've sought the death penalty if the defendants refused the deal. He responded by saying, "That is not an issue before me." He further said that the result in this case, which he called "death by incarceration," is consistent with "what has been done in Philadelphia not only in the last 20 years but by all indications the last 100 years."
The movement that voted Krasner into office did so because they wanted a change from the prosecution of the last 100 years — in cases big and small. When I knocked on doors as a volunteer for the campaign, people said that they would vote for him because of his strong stance against the death penalty. The reformer, who not long ago called Lynne Abraham "the bottom of the barrel," in Monday's press conference justified his decision by saying, "The reality is that the outcome under Lynne Abraham, who said that she was passionate about the death penalty, was no different than this." That's an indictment, not an excuse.
Krasner could have taken the death penalty off the table without any preconditions. He chose not to.