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Crime Victims Backing Philly DA Larry Krasner Don’t Want Tougher Sentences — They Want Fair Ones

Kim King (back left) behind her brother Damani, with her brother Terrell (back right) holding their youngest brother.
Photo courtesy of Kim King

Crime Victims Backing Philly DA Larry Krasner Don’t Want Tougher Sentences — They Want Fair Ones

A widely shared, recent piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer tells the story of a woman’s grief six months after her husband was murdered. Gerry Grandzol was shot at close range by two young Black men while he was unpacking groceries from his SUV with his two young daughters. The family, which is white, lived in a typically sleepy neighborhood where shootings are rare. After losing her husband, Kristin Grandzol said she was moving her family to the suburbs. “Slain Spring Garden activist Gerard Grandzol’s widow: City not safe, we’re leaving,” the headline proclaimed.

In part, the Inquirer implied, that’s because she wasn’t sure Philadelphia’s new, reform-minded district attorney, Larry Krasner, could be trusted to hold her husband’s killers responsible. One of them was under 18 and she worried that given Krasner’s push for more “lenient sentences,” as the story put it, he would be tried as a juvenile. “I know I wouldn’t want to still be on the streets of Philadelphia with them free,” she said. But Krasner’s office had not said it would charge the perpetrator as a juvenile — a point buried in the piece — and later wrote a strongly worded opposition to the defense’s motion to do so. A hearing to decide if he should be tried as a juvenile is scheduled for next month.

Articles like this and others, featuring the stories of victims who are unhappy with Krasner’s office, make it seem as if crime victims on the whole oppose him, that they want a DA who throws the book at criminals in order to keep them safe. But advocates of fair sentencing say that narrative ignores another set of crime survivors: those who have suffered but who still support a more nuanced approach to punishment and rehabilitation. Many of those people not only support Krasner — they campaigned for him.

“People who are most affected by crime most often have an understanding that people who are committing crime and ending up in prison for it are the same people that have been harmed,” said Yale Law School professor Miriam Gohara.

Take Kim King, age 46, who volunteered for Krasner’s campaign. Twenty years ago, her younger brother Damani was murdered. She said Damani was sitting in a car late at night in North Philadelphia when another young man opened fire. Damani was just 23 years old. It was a “devastating” blow, King said. She comes from a tight-knit family, with a father who was a high school teacher and tried to instill in them the importance of education and good morals. This wasn’t supposed to happen to her family, she thought. Her early days of grief were defined by both sadness and a burning desire for retribution. The night Damani died, her family gathered at the hospital. “There were some males in the family who were talking about going to the area and seeking revenge. I remember wanting that; I wanted him to hurt,” she said of the perpetrator. “I wanted him to be punished.” Luckily, her father talked the younger men down. Otherwise, one tragedy would likely have led to others.

The case was never solved. King said that the police investigator was sure he knew who did it, but could not find witnesses to ID the gunman. About a year after Damani was killed, she heard that the suspect was convicted for an unrelated murder and sent away for life. And in Pennsylvania, life means life. She thought this would help ease her sorrow, knowing that her brother’s killer was behind bars for his remaining days — but found that her grief stung just as sharply. “So what that he got a life sentence? That didn’t give me any resolve for Damani,” she said. “I realized it just didn’t relieve me from the pain.”

She came to believe that in order to move on, she needed to forgive her brother’s killer. This revelation came at a time when she was looking for people to find the same mercy for another of her brothers, Terrell, who had been given a life sentence for his participation in a murder. “I couldn’t ask for forgiveness for one when I wasn’t willing to give it to the other,” she told The Appeal. She describes Terrell as a young man who sought acceptance in the wrong places. He did something immoral, and needed to be punished, she said. But in the years since, he’s grown into a calm, insightful adult, she said, a wholly different person than the young man who got into trouble. She wants him home.

King mourns the loss of both her brothers: one to gun violence and the other to prison. This viewpoint has shaped her views on criminal justice. “If you did something wrong, you deserve to be punished, but don’t take away an entire life,” she said. “We need to deal with each [person] as an individual instead of a one-size-fits-all with these ridiculous sentences.” When she heard about Larry Krasner, a DA candidate who had a “similar mindset” to her when it came to punishment and sentencing, she volunteered for his campaign.

King’s position as a crime victim who supports a less punitive criminal justice system is not uncommon. A 2016 poll of over 800 crime victims by the Alliance for Safety and Justice found respondents overwhelmingly favored rehabilitation over harsh punishment: Seven out of 10 preferred prosecutors who focused on neighborhood-based rehabilitation services over long prison sentences — victims of serious violent crimes, including rape, assault, sexual assault, or murder of a family member, leaned towards rehabilitation at an even slightly higher rate. Fifty-two percent of all respondents believed that prison makes a person more likely to commit another crime.

That’s partly because of where crime happens. It tends to be concentrated in neighborhoods that are less economically stable. The reality is that most people who are perpetrators of violence have also been victims. Studiesshow that incarcerated men have experienced trauma at a rate double that of other men in the community. One study showed that up to 60 percent of male inmates showed signs of PTSD — not from war abroad, but from getting beaten up, and threatened with guns or knives.

Nationally, 95 percent of incarcerated people eventually return home, so high-crime communities have a vested interest in perpetrators’ rehabilitation. “It makes sense that communities would rather have people come back who have received mental health treatment for their trauma or other conditions, for their addictions, rather than having people come out who were more traumatized than when they went in,” Gohara said.

Lorraine Haw with her son Phillip Ocampo.
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Haw

In Philadelphia, King was far from the only crime victim who campaigned for Krasner. At least a dozen others were actively involved, according to Sean Damon, an organizer at the West Philadelphia Amistad Law Project. One of those volunteers was Lorraine Haw, 61, who is fighting for her son to be released from a life sentence, and also for the man who killed her brother to be taken off death row. Like King, Haw understands that when a loved one is hurt or killed, the natural initial reaction is a desire for retribution. “But once your sense comes back, you realize that there is no closure,” she said. “You know how I live better? I’ve forgiven that man that took my brother’s life. Everybody deserves a second chance.”

Krasner hasn’t always won praise from crime victims. During his first few months in office, his lawyers dropped the ball on keeping victims up to date on changes in individual cases. This lapse drew pushback, which was fair, says Victoria Greene, co-founder of EMIR Healing Center, a nonprofit that supports family and friends of murder victims in a relatively high-crime neighborhood. She herself lost a son to gun violence. But in the wake of that criticism, Krasner announced a committee of crime victims to act as policy advisers, something he’d planned since his election. “He definitely is considering victims, talking about them, that’s an issue that he’s strong on,” she said.

To Greene, what’s most important is that victims are given a seat at the table, both at trial and in policy discussions — something she has not seen past DAs prioritize. Many people she works with report feeling like “pawns” at the trial, she said, and then having their cases “swept under the rug.”

The families Greene helps, who are mostly Black or Latinx, “they’re not heard,” she said, unlike white families like the Grandzols, whose cases more often make the headlines. “When someone white is murdered it’s, ‘Oh they could have been successful. Oh, they could have been this or that.’ That’s not what you hear when a Black man is murdered,” she said. She is hopeful that Krasner “will help change the culture and give a semblance of equality,” she added. “Victims need a platform. That’s the problem; we don’t have a platform.”

Louisiana Prosecutor Testifies in Favor of Jury Law Rooted in White Supremacy

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John F. DeRosier testifying before the Louisana House of Representatives

Louisiana Prosecutor Testifies in Favor of Jury Law Rooted in White Supremacy

What I am about to tell you is deeply problematic. And it makes sense that of all states, it’s happening in Louisiana — which, with its sky-high incarceration rate, is the “world’s prison capital.”

According to local reports, a staggering “one in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average. Among black men from New Orleans, one in 14 is behind bars; one in seven is either in prison, on parole or on probation.”

Louisiana holds the horrible title of the world’s most incarcerated state in part because it pays local sheriffs a per diem to house inmates, who greatly rely on those payments to fund their departments. So the sheriffs are incentivized to house as many people as they can for as long as they can.

The other part of this story is something I must confess that I did not know until a few months ago. In 48 states, and in federal trials, all 12 jurors agree on the guilty verdict in order for a defendant to be convicted of a crime. In both Louisiana and Oregon, only 10 out of 12 jurors have to agree on a guilty verdict in felony cases. In Louisiana, non-unanimous verdicts are allowed in murder cases — but Oregon still requires a unanimous vote to find defendants guilty of murder. In those two states alone, two people on a jury could be absolutely convinced, deadlocked and unmovable, of a defendant’s innocence, and that defendant could still be sent to prison for the rest of their natural life. In fact, this very thing has happened many times in both states. In late 2016, Cardell Hayes of New Orleans was convicted in what his defense team claimed was a self-defense killing of a former New Orleans Saints football player — even though two of the 12 jurors dissented. In April 2017, Hayes received a 25-year sentence from the judge.

Now, here’s the worst part: The non-unanimous jury law in Louisiana has its roots in post-Reconstruction era white supremacy. Indeed, the non-unanimous jury rule was formally adopted as law during the state’s 1898 constitutional convention. There, lawmakers said that their “mission was … to establish the supremacy of the white race.” Over a century later, non-unanimous verdicts are a tool to perpetuate mass incarceration and racial oppression.

As early as today, however, Louisiana could reverse course and join the rest of the nation by requiring unanimous guilty verdicts in criminal cases. State Senate Bill 243, proposed by State Senator JP Morrell, a Black man from New Orleans, would allow voters to decide if Louisiana’s constitution should be changed to require juries in felony cases to return unanimous verdicts.

But Louisiana’s extremely powerful district attorneys, who no doubt love that non-unanimous jury verdicts help them convict and sentence people to prison, are not going out without a fight. And it’s that fight that I want to show you today. It’s one of the most remarkable examples of how our modern justice system was designed to charge, convict, and sentence African Americans as easily as humanly possible as a means of systemic oppression.

One of the leading proponents of the effort to maintain non-unanimous jury verdicts is Calcasieu Parish District Attorney John F. DeRosier. Let me tell you a little bit about DeRosier and his love of mass incarceration. A local defense attorney told me that DeRosier’s office files a notice of intent to seek life without the possibility of parole for all of the juvenile offenders in his parish who are eligible for re-sentencing under the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which held that its ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders applies retroactively. Another thing about DeRosier: One of his top prosecutors is Hugo Holland, who has been accused of misconduct so often in capital cases that one defense attorney called him “the face of Louisiana’s broken death penalty.”

So maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me when, in late April, DeRosier, a white man, decided to testify against the legislation to repeal non-unanimous jury verdicts — arguing basically that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — saying “the concept has worked” for Louisiana. But what he said next set off a firestorm among Black lawmakers.

DA DeRosier testifies in favor of maintaining non-unanimous juries.

“I’ve heard a lot about this system being adopted as a result of a vestige of slavery,” DeRosier said. “I have no reason to doubt that. I’m not proud of that. That’s the way it started, but it is what it is. However, ladies and gentlemen, that was 138 years ago.”

Before I ever heard how Black lawmakers responded, DeRosier’s open, flippant, and callous admission that the way Louisiana does justice is indeed a vestige of slavery that he’s not proud of, but “it is what it is,” made my own blood boil.

You see, it is what it is not just because lawmakers in Louisiana made it that way to oppress African Americans by any means necessary over a century ago — it is what it is because Louisiana lawmakers have kept the system that way since then.

The very fact that a system was built in the shadows of slavery to oppress African Americans in the harshest, most unfair ways imaginable, is reason enough to completely re-evaluate the whole thing. But until now, over 100 years later, Louisiana has refused to do so.

Seething in righteous indignation, Louisiana House Representative Ted James, a Black attorney from Baton Rouge, struggled to hold himself together when it came time for him to respond to DeRosier. It’s best if you watch the exchange for yourself, but here’s what James said.

Louisiana House Representative Ted James confronts DA DeRosier on SB 243

“Mr. DeRosier — I am so utterly offended for you to start your comments and say ‘I know that this was rooted in slavery, but it is what it is.’ And I needed you to hear that from me. And I wish you would look at me while I’m speaking with you. Because I think I deserve that kind of respect after you just disrespected me on this committee. You are elected to represent everybody and to admit that it started in slavery and say ‘it is what it is’ — I hope the people of your parish are listening. And if they aren’t, I’m going to make sure that they know what you said today. And I am utterly offended and for you to not even look at me in my face — this is a problem.”

It was incredibly brave and necessary for James to call out this casual admission from DeRosier of the fact that the law he wants to maintain is rooted in white backlash to Black folks being freed after slavery, but that he was just fine with it because it worked well for him.

The harsh fact of the matter is that this nation has not remotely come to grips with how many of its laws are rooted in slavery and bigoted oppression. After the Civil War, the United States never said, “Let’s examine every law and policy and system and structure we have to evaluate whether or not they were created as a tools of oppression.” That never happened.

And so here we are, over a century after Louisiana created laws to oppress one group more than all others, and district attorneys, the people who serve as the primary gatekeepers of America’s justice system, are still arguing that they are fine with vestiges from slavery in their system because it works for them.

It’s disgusting and we’ve gotta lot of work to do.

Clarification: In both Louisiana and Oregon, only 10 out of 12 jurors have to agree on a guilty verdict in felony cases. In Louisiana, non-unanimous verdicts are allowed in murder cases — but Oregon still requires a unanimous vote to find defendants guilty of murder.

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San Diego DA Says She Won’t Take Law Enforcement Donations — But They’re Still Fueling Her Campaign

San Diego Interim District Attorney Summer Stephan
(Still from campaign video)

San Diego DA Says She Won’t Take Law Enforcement Donations — But They’re Still Fueling Her Campaign

Immediately after a heated debate last Thursday that focused on police accountability, the criminalization of homelessness, and the use of gang databases, interim San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan spoke to a handful of reporters in a room not far from the stage at the Chula Vista library. There, she fielded several questions about the impact that campaign contributions have had on the race, amid reports that a PAC funded by George Soros, a billionaire pushing for criminal justice reform nationwide, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of her opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright.

During the contentious campaign, Stephan has been positioned — and often touted herself — as “law enforcement’s choice.” But, she insisted to the reporters that night, her campaign hadn’t received any financial benefits from that support.

“Police unions have not given me campaign donations and I don’t accept campaign donations from my own team,” Stephan said, responding to a question from The Appeal. “Because I want to be very ethical when I promote them or do anything. Nor have I accepted donations from victims’ groups that we have contracts with.”

And while it’s true that Stephan’s campaign itself hasn’t accepted donations from law enforcement unions, The Appeal has found that political action committees associated with local law enforcement groups have already spent at least $313,000 to support Stephan, and almost $5,000 on negative advertisements against her opponent.

The PAC that has given the greatest amount of support to Stephan, San Diegans Against Crime, is associated with her own office. Sponsored by the San Diego Deputy District Attorneys Association, the group is comprised mostly of her own staff members (the La Mesa Police Officers Association PAC recently contributed $5,000 to it as well). The PAC has spent over $277,000 on Stephan’s re-election campaign on signs, television commercials, mailers, and polling. In contrast, Stephan’s own campaign has so far only spent just over $214,000 in 2018, according to its last filing.

Other spending in support of Stephan from law enforcement includes $12,700 from the San Diego Police Officers Association PAC, and the Deputy Sheriffs Association PAC, which has already spent $23,630.

Stephan’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

In San Diego County, individual donations to campaigns are capped at $800. Political parties can only contribute $51,850 to campaigns for county-wide offices. But the amount that political action committees can spend on local elections is unlimited, making those PACs, which both campaigns have taken advantage of, an easy way for groups like law enforcement unions or criminal justice reform groups to make a major impact on the race.

Law enforcement unions’ spending on district attorney campaigns has come under scrutiny across California in the lead-up to the June 5 election, especially because prosecutors who accept donations, or have received the support of law enforcement PACs, have repeatedly declined to press charges against officers who shoot unarmed civilians or engage in other forms of misconduct.

In Alameda County, incumbent District Attorney Nancy O’Malley accepted $10,000 from the Fremont police union this past November while her office was investigating three members of the union for their roles in two separate fatal shootings. By February, all three officers were cleared of wrongdoing. In Sacramento, District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has received $420,000 in campaign contributions over the course of her three campaigns, according to The Intercept, including $13,000 in campaign donations from two local law enforcement unions just days after Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man, was killed by Sacramento police officers in his grandparents’ backyard.

San Diego has had its own recent spate of police shootings. At an early March press conference, Stephan announced that she had cleared four separate sheriff’s deputies of criminal charges in the killings of four civilians in separate incidents in 2017. Ten days after that, the San Diego Deputy Sheriff’s Association spent over $10,000 in support of Stephan.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s campaign, which has focused on ending cash bail and increasing police accountability, has received $600,000 in support so far from a PAC funded by Soros.

Whether campaign donations from law enforcement truly impact the conduct of a district attorney is an open question, explained Carissa Byrne Hessick, a criminal law professor at the University of North Carolina and director of that school’s Prosecutors and Politics Project. But the perception of what that money is trying to achieve cuts both ways when it comes to campaigns.

“In some counties, incumbent DAs are facing criticism for accepting money from law enforcement unions when those incumbent DAs have to make decisions about whether to charge officers involved in use-of-force cases, and some challengers have been criticized for taking money from groups outside of their jurisdiction,” Hessick said. “The controversy in San Diego is playing out in counties across the country.”

The Appeal is an editorially independent project of Tides Advocacy and does not receive funding from any Soros-funded PAC or Soros’s Open Society Foundations. Tides Advocacy sponsors numerous other projects, however, some of which do receive funding from the Open Society Policy Center.

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