Does Philadelphia have a problem with incarcerating too many criminals? Are prosecutors in the District Attorney's Office "forcing witnesses to say things they don't want to say" to obtain convictions? Are prosecutors routinely hiding exculpatory evidence that they are legally obligated to turn over to defense counsel? Are they regularly lying to judges in Common Pleas Court? Does the DA's Office need a "culture change"?
According to Larry Krasner, the Democratic candidate for district attorney in next week's election, the answer to all of the above questions is an emphatic "Yes!" In interviews and campaign speeches, Krasner has made it clear that if elected, there will be a major housecleaning at the DA's Office. It is apparent that if elected, he will fire a substantial number of top prosecutors — talented, capable lawyers who have devoted their careers to serving the people of Philadelphia — whom he believes have behaved unethically and illegally in pursuing criminals. Krasner has declared that "a lot of them are going to get locked up and charged."
In justifying these measures, Krasner has described a dystopian criminal justice system in which the prosecutors are often the true criminals and the criminal defendants are too often the victims of wrongful and illegal actions by police, prosecutors, and judges. Krasner bases this alarming assessment on his personal experiences as a civil rights advocate and criminal defense lawyer. He speaks with bitterness about the treatment that he and his clients have received in the criminal justice system.
Frankly, I have not had the same experience. Over almost five decades, I have litigated criminal cases in Philadelphia as both an assistant district attorney and as a criminal defense lawyer. In this latter capacity, I have engaged in countless courtroom slugfests with very aggressive, determined, and able prosecutors. I have had profound differences with them over whether witnesses were telling the truth or the prosecutors were fairly summing up the evidence or making proper arguments based on the law and the facts. Rarely have I liked what they did to me or my clients.
But for all of that, I have not in my long experience witnessed the rampant abuses described by Krasner. Subornation of perjury, hiding exculpatory evidence, and other types of prosecutorial misconduct may well have occurred over the years. But Krasner's assertion that these types of unethical and illegal practices are so prevalent that the District Attorney's Office must undergo a purge stretches reality to the breaking point. To the contrary, while I have many times vigorously disagreed with and bitterly fought my prosecutorial opponents, the hard blows landed by them were almost without exception fairly delivered and warranted by the law and the evidence.
Given this disparity between my professional experience and Krasner's wholesale condemnation of the Philadelphia criminal justice system, I am moved to wonder if Krasner would be ideologically suited to provide proper or adequate leadership in the city's fight against crime.
While it may come as news to Krasner, thwarting defense counsel and locking up criminals is what prosecutors are supposed to do. We have an adversarial system of justice, where one side tries to beat the other, and, in the process, things can get very rough.
How rough? Many years ago, when I was a young lawyer with the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the U.S. Justice Department, I prosecuted a mob case where the defendants had a contract on the key witness and had coerced another to testify falsely for the defense. To top it off, there were also reports that the defendants were trying to bribe one of the jurors. One day, in the strike force office, as I was complaining about this miserable situation, my boss jabbed a finger in my chest and barked, "Hey, sonny, this ain't beanbag!"
Indeed. That was true then and it's true now. The next district attorney needs to realize that Philadelphia has a serious violent crime problem that requires tough, dedicated, experienced, able, and highly motivated prosecutors who are willing to go into court even under the worst of circumstances and put it all on the line. Philadelphians deserve it, and anything less would be the equivalent of one side not showing up for the fight.
Krasner's ill-conceived threats to fire experienced and capable prosecutors, and to possibly criminally charge others, is hardly a rallying cry calculated to inspire the assistant DAs in the trenches or to advance the interests of Philadelphia's peaceful and law-abiding citizens.