Asian American store owners outraged by a plea deal for a man who shot a West Philadelphia deli owner in broad daylight with an AK-47. The widow and a sister of slain Philadelphia police officers. Family members of people fatally beaten, stabbed, and shot.
In past elections, they might have been the voices an incumbent district attorney enlisted to remind voters of the need to be tough on crime. But Larry Krasner’s victory four years ago upended traditional views of the prosecutor’s office and its mission. And as he seeks the Democratic nomination for a second term this month, it’s crime victims and their friends and family who have emerged as some of the most visible figures in the campaign against Krasner before the May 18 primary.
They are prominently featured in anti-Krasner TV ads funded by an outside group that is the biggest spender in the race, and in campaign mailers for Krasner’s opponent, Carlos Vega. They are campaigning for and with Vega, a former longtime assistant district attorney. They are saying Krasner and his office mistreat victims and their families in a zeal to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration.
“He cares more about the criminals than he does the victims,” Shaki’ra Wilson-Burroughs, whose brother, Police Sgt. Robert Wilson III, was fatally shot in 2015, says in one anti-Krasner TV ad. She said in an interview that her family was “completely blindsided” by a plea deal that allowed the killers to avoid the possibility of the death penalty, which Krasner opposes.
Victims point to what they consider lenient negotiated sentences for defendants in gun and violent crime cases. Krasner has offered murder defendants plea deals in cases where predecessors would likely have pursued life sentences.
“He didn’t care about the victim,” said Poeng, whose case has galvanized business owners, about 40 of whom rallied with Vega in Chinatown this week. “For him not to see the impact of violent crime and not to have sympathy ... it’s not acceptable.”
Vega has been happy to amplify the criticism, pledging to communicate with victims and families. “I believe in safety and reform, and I believe the DA’s Office needs to be transparent and needs to speak to victims of crime concerning each stage of the case,” he said in an interview.
Krasner spokesperson Jane Roh defended the office’s handling of individual cases in detail. She said the mothers of Wilson’s children didn’t want the death penalty for his killers. Addressing the Poeng case, Roh said Krasner works to “seek evenhanded justice.”
“We are heartbroken at the loss, suffering, and trauma of victims, co-victims, and survivors of violent crime ... ,” Krasner said in a statement. “I understand that there are some who will not be happy with the outcome of their cases, and the office respects their right to express grief in whatever way they desire.”
The high-profile appearance of crime victims in campaign season would often be perilous for an incumbent prosecutor. The political calculus is more nuanced for Krasner, who vowed to upend the office during his 2017 campaign, which vaulted him to the forefront of a new crop of progressive DAs. He’s seeking reelection amid a surge in gun violence, and spends more time touting the exoneration of wrongfully convicted prisoners than successful prosecutions.
Duquesne University law professor Wesley Oliver said the relationships between prosecutors and crime victims “should be a complicated one.” A prosecutor’s client is not the victim, but rather society at large.
“The crime victim will have an interest in punishment on the more extreme end of the scale,” Oliver said. “But that’s not the entire story. A prosecutor should also consider the offender’s potential for rehabilitation, the degree of risk this person poses to society,” and other factors.
Temple University law professor Lauren Ouziel, a former federal prosecutor, said it’s also a DA’s job to “ensure that victims are being heard” and to “keep crime victims or their families apprised of major developments.”
The most prominent role for victims has come through advertising by Protect Our Police, an anti-Krasner political action committee formed by retired officers and partly funded by the police union. The group has spent more than $130,000 on TV, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact.
One ad features Wilson-Burroughs, Terri O’Connor, the widow of Police Cpl. James O’Connor IV, and three other women who display photos of slain loved ones. “Why isn’t he siding with the mothers, and the sisters and the fathers who’ve been affected by gun violence?” Rosalind Pichardo asks in the ad. Her brother was fatally shot in 2012. The gunman hasn’t been arrested.
“I’m hoping he’s not while Krasner’s in office because he’s not going to be prosecuted and he’s going to plead out and my family’s not going to get the justice they need,” she said in an interview.
Some victims from past cases support Krasner.
Shannon Coleman, a great-niece of Louise Talley, has advocated for Anthony Wright, who was imprisoned for 25 years for Talley’s 1991 rape and murder before being acquitted in a 2016 retrial. She called Vega, one of two prosecutors at Wright’s second trial, an “old-school thinker.”
Lorraine “Dee Dee” Haw, whose brother was fatally shot in 1992 and whose son was convicted in a different murder, has spoken at Krasner campaign events. “If anyone is on both sides, it’s Krasner,” she said in an interview. “Vega, he’s only on one side of the coin. He’s only on the victims’ side of the coin.”
Roh and Krasner campaign manager Brandon Evans didn’t point to any victims from Krasner’s tenure who support him.
“We are not gonna trot out all of the victims and the families who are happy with what we did, because we are not going to use them,” Krasner said Wednesday during the candidates’ only televised debate.
As Vega campaigned with Asian American business owners Tuesday in Chinatown, small business owner Adam Xu decried what he called Krasner’s “sweetheart deal” of 3½ to 10 years in prison for the gunman who shot Poeng. Federal prosecutors later charged the gunman and secured a 14-year sentence.
“If Krasner gets reelected,” Xu said, “there will be more victims like Mike Poeng, more looters on the street, and more blood in the city of Philadelphia.”