Philadelphia Media Slam Newly Elected DA Krasner for Firings but House Cleaning Advances His Promise of Equal Justice
It didn’t take too much deliberation for the Philadelphia Inquirer to render its guilty verdict against District Attorney Larry Krasner after he took office on January 2: “the first days of Krasner’s administration,” the editorial board intoned nine days later, “seem more about imprudence than jurisprudence”
Zing. A rhyme. But what does it all mean? Well, Krasner swiftly ousted 31 prosecutors who packed up their desks along with others who had resigned on their own accord before he took office. Last year, Krasner, a career civil rights and defense attorney, rode a surge of grassroots organizing to a shocking win, promising to turn the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office upside down and take concrete steps to end mass incarceration.
What’s surprising to me, first of all, is all the Inky’s surprise: What should be remarkable is that Krasner fired such a small number, judging the vast majority of people in an office of roughly three hundred prosecutors to be ready to head in a very different direction under his new leadership — a direction in which he plans to leaven the conventional pursuit of punishment with a more holistic conception of public safety and well-being.
The Inquirer’s editorial board, however, shrouded its opposition to the firings (which were actually pointed requests to resign) with criticism of the way in which they were orchestrated. Echoing reporting from the paper, they complained that “victims of crimes, witnesses and people accused, along with judges and defense attorneys, were left in a lurch in city courtrooms when prosecutors expected to play their part in our criminal justice system were suddenly yanked from those roles, with no replacements ready.”
At least two different stories in the paper highlighted a murder case that was delayed because veteran prosecutor Andrew Notaristefano was pushed out, with one story citing the emotional toll the delay caused for the victim’s family. No doubt: lengthy trials are painful for victims’ families, and the paper is right to tell their stories. But context is important and hard to find in the coverage: trials are delayed all the time, often at the request of prosecutors. It’s worth considering, then, why this one delay has dominated the paper’s coverage of Krasner’s extremely short tenure, and why stories about the many Philadelphians who have had their lives ripped apart by mass incarceration and police brutality — and what they might be hoping for from the new district attorney — have been absent.
The paper’s reporting — “Last week’s shakeup and the new appointments added to the impression — and in some corners, hope — that Krasner, a career civil rights lawyer, would drastically reshape the office and its priorities” — turns reality on its head, portraying their own reactionary position as the majority one prevailing in the city. In some corners? The paper has yet to accept that their position, which is also the position of the city’s criminal justice establishment, was thoroughly repudiated at the ballot box.
The Inquirer is not alone. At The Philadelphia Citizen, co-Executive Director Larry Platt compared an inexperienced Krasner to Trump and Oprah, lampooning his “amateurish first week,” pointing to the “freaked out Assistant District Attorneys” blowing up his phone. “It had,” he hyperbolically suggested, “the feel of an authoritarian (Trump-like?) purge.” But the Trump comparisons will fall flat. Most Philadelphians hate Trump, and they voted for Krasner in a landslide. And though Philadelphians voted against typical prosecutorial expertise in carrying out systematic justice, Krasner has considerable experience in the Philadelphia criminal justice system as a defense attorney. What’s more, Trump is a monstrous bigot fomenting a smokescreen of fear and hate to advance a war against poor people. By contrast, Krasner has pledged to do his part to fight back on the other side.
The Inquirer’s coverage is not just anti-Krasner; it is bad reporting, featuring fundamental oversights that shouldn’t appear in the city’s paper of record. First, the coverage is premised on the belief that Krasner was acting in bad faith — that he jettisoned people like Notaristefano for no good reason — and worse yet, that he has no real interest in securing justice. It didn’t seem to occur to the paper that Krasner might have a serious problem with the way that Notaristefano was prosecuting cases or about his overall track record.
Second, The Inquirer seems dumbstruck that Krasner’s own personal impression of prosecutors played a role in their ouster. But Krasner has spent decades in the court system, giving him a front row seat to how prosecutors play dirty by, say, turning a blind eye to brazenly lying cops or unconstitutionally hiding evidence from the defense. Why shouldn’t this sort of information, combined with what he has learned from others in the legal system, inform his personnel decisions?
Third, the coverage betrays a basic misreading of what district attorneys do. The presumption at work is that the district attorney’s office is a technocratic one rather than a political force that wields incredible discretionary power over people’s lives and liberty. Consider that no one would ever fault a president, governor or mayor for excusing functionaries who were hostile to their mission, and installing a new team. The technocratic conception of the district attorney’s office is a smokescreen obscuring the regular operation of mass incarceration: seeking maximum sentences for huge numbers of people at whatever cost, however ethically repugnant or legally dubious. That the status quo was normal did not make it right.
But perhaps The Inquirer’s biggest reporting failure is that it didn’t deign to examine why Krasner fired the prosecutors. It is The Inquirer’s duty to investigate the question: Krasner cannot publicly answer it. That would invite defamation suits and a can-of-worms of defense lawyers citing said explanations to reopen old convictions won by the disparaged prosecutors.
You would have to read the news site City & State PA for any real insight. As one source inside the office who kept their job told the site, many were “supervisors with different visions, veteran high-salaried do-nothings or younger prosecutors associated with misconduct.” The rationale behind many of the firings was indeed obvious.
Prosecutor Mark Gilson, for example, was amongst the booted. Gilson at one time ran a conviction integrity unit — the purported goal of which are to search out wrongful convictions — that under former District Attorney Seth Williams found that most every questionable conviction had the utmost integrity. And as for the large numbers of people fired from the homicide unit: they were not fired not out of animosity toward the prosecution of murder cases but rather because the homicide unit was the home of some of the office’s most veteran prosecutors — prosecutors who were likely deeply committed to the old way of doing things.
The alarmist coverage of the firings has also overshadowed hires and internal promotions. The new chief of the conviction integrity unit is Patricia Cummings, who headed up the unit in Dallas County, Texas. Refreshingly, she has a reputation for seeking to free people from prison who did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. That should have been news but, unsurprisingly, wasn’t. The Inquirer had until quite late in the game ignored the office’s failure to free the wrongfully convicted.
Or what about Movita Johnson-Harrell, an anti-violence activist — who has lost a father, son, brother, and cousin to gunfire — being picked to lead the victims services office? Or Krasner’s remarkable choice for first assistant district attorney, his second in command: 83-year old Carolyn Engel Temin, who was first female public defender in the city, a former prosecutor, and a longtime city judge who also served as an International Judge on the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo? Much of this was covered by The Inquirer, but mostly lost amidst the hand wringing over prosecution as we knew it coming to an end.
Winning the local media war will be tough for Krasner because many are rooting against him. And Krasner doesn’t like much of what he sees in the media. As he told me in an interview last fall, he believes that many reporters practice “yellow journalism” and are solely interested in stories that gin up fears of crime and thus grease the wheels of mass incarceration. His criticism is spot on: take, for example, their 2009 investigation of unpaid court debt that prompted city courts to launch an ill-fated shakedown campaign. But Krasner shouldn’t write the papers off: diagnosing The Inquirer’s shortcomings will not, even in an era of steep decline, will them out of existence. Krasner should have prioritized getting ahead of the inevitable media backlash, and tried his best to not let the firing story precede the one about hiring.
There was one complaint from The Inquirer that Krasner should take seriously. The editorial board noted that Krasner’s office did not release a list of those who resigned, saying that they would take 30 days to respond to a public records request. At first glance, this looks like an error on the District Attorney’s part. The public has a right to know about basic government functions and decision making. And Krasner should have known that The Inquirer, like many newspapers, puts a premium on transparency, often at the expense of most anything else, including whether Philadelphians receive substantive justice from legal system. That said, Krasner did allow these people to resign: it would have been odd for him to then announce to the public that they had been fired.
But even though Krasner should prioritize reaching out to the city’s papers, it ultimately falls to the papers themselves to report well on Krasner’s new reign at the DA’s office. And to report well in this new era, they have to think about criminal justice more expansively and critically. The Inquirer, which sets the tune for the entire Philadelphia media, has long mostly been interested in criminal justice only insofar as it pertains to street crime and official corruption (there are important exceptions to this, notably my former editor, criminal justice writer and bar reviewer Samantha Melamed, who recently wrote a story looking ahead at what Krasner’s conviction integrity unit might mean for those with wrongful conviction claims). To wit: they turned against the now imprisoned former District Attorney Seth Williams not because his office was presiding over mass imprisonment, blithe complicity in police perjury, failure to charge prison guards with assault and charging the prisoner victim instead, and using the legal system to swipe poor people’s stuff. It was only when he was caught in a case of mind-numbingly pathetic and penny-ante corruption that they called for his head.
I’m not arguing that the press shouldn’t adopt a critical stance toward Krasner. Far from it. But they should redefine what it means to hold prosecutors accountable, and then do so zealously. Krasner promised to help put an end to the era of mass incarceration and crack down on police misconduct. That will be a daunting task. Reporters should hold him to it, carefully scrutinizing his actions over the next months and years to determine whether he is sending significantly fewer people to prison, for significantly less time, as promised.
Krasner was catapulted into office on a wave of grassroots civil rights organizers demanding an end to the era of mass incarceration. Getting rid of prosecutors hostile to that mission was an expected and utterly necessary first step.