About That Letter About Larry

 

There is a letter from 12 “former Assistant DAs” calling on voters not to vote for Larry Krasner on the grounds that he has never been a prosecutor, that he has been misleading in criticizing the culture of the District Attorney’s office, and that our safety will be at risk.

Not only do I not find the letter plausible, for a number of reasons, large and small, the more I read it and learn about those who signed it the more appalled by it I get.

To start with the big reasons.

First, we don’t need to take Larry Krasner’s word for the problems in the DA’s office. There is plenty of independent evidence.

We know that mass incarceration, especially of black men, is a serious problem across America and the rate of incarceration in Philadelphia is among the highest in the country.

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office has sought the death penalty in far more cases than is typical. The office took pride in Lynn Abraham being the “deadliest DA in America.”

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office sued to stop Governor Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty.

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office has a history of looking the other way when police officers lie on the witness stand or frame innocent people or concoct evidence. Until Larry’s lawsuit forced Seth Williams to stop doing so, ADAs relied on the testimony of six officers in a narcotics unit that repeatedly violated the law. (That a jury, impressed by the badge, mistakenly acquitted them doesn’t call into question the overwhelming evidence against them).

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office has been incredibly reluctant to admit errors, and thus refused to reopen cases, hold new trials, or drop cases against people who have been unfairly imprisoned.

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office worked with the Philadelphia Police to violate the civil rights of protesters at the 2000 Republican convention, filing false charges against them and holding many of them in jail for days. Larry was the lawyer who helped get many of them released.

We know that the Philadelphia DA’s office has gone easy on another police officer, John Hulmes who admitted to committing perjury  even as they continued to rely on his testimony in court. As the article I just cited shows, there have been many other cases in which police officers have not been held accountable by the DA’s office.

And we know that in important respects the criminal justice system in Philadelphia is broken. The clearance rate for murder in our city has recently dropped under 50%, nearly 20 percentage points below where it was in 2012 and below the national average of 65%.  One theory of the drop is that community mistrust has made it harder for the police and DA to get the cooperation they need to find murderer. Another is that recent changes in police procedures, put in place by Commissioner Ramsey largely to stop the police from concocting evidence, has made it harder to secure the eyewitnesses testimony. We need the kind of reform Larry is talking about to improve community relationships and to hold the cops and the DAs up to the high standards that will make them more effective.

A letter that talks about the reforms that have been made while ignoring how deeply problematic the office still is, is dubious in the extreme.

Second, a premise of the letter, that one has to have been a prosecutor to be an effective DA strikes me as utterly false. Most of us voted for Josh Shapiro for Attorney General even though he had never done any trial work of any kind as a lawyer.

Prosecutors leave the DA’s office all the time and make big bucks as really effective defense attorneys. What is implausible about someone going in the other direction? A prosecutor is not some special kind of criminal lawyer radically different from defense lawyers. A lawyer isn’t sprinkled with magic dust when he or she becomes a prosecutor

Larry has spent his whole life trying criminal cases. Who knows what prosecutors do better than someone who has to defend clients against what they do? Who has seen more good and bad cases than someone with 30 years of trying cases? Who has seen more police testimony that honestly supports those cases as well as testimony that does not support them or is dishonest. Who would have a a better idea about what sensible and stupid prosecutions look like?

And, third, when it talks about “risking our safety” the letter appeals to the usual fear of crime, with all that racist and classist baggage that goes with it, to encourage people to believe that putting justice first threatens our safety. That notion that we can’t afford justice is one reason we have a DA’s office that is so unjust. And it is also untrue. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, if we really want to be tough on crime, what we really need to do is put justice, and the reforms Larry has been talking about, first.

Those are the main reasons reject the claims of this letter. But there are others.

I can’t take it seriously because only 12 former assistant DAs signed it when there must be hundreds of people who might have done so.

I can’t take it seriously because none of those 12, who mostly worked under Lynn Abraham, ever stood up and complained and protested against the abuses in the DAs office that took place while they were there. None of them did what AJ Thomson did when he courageously, and at the cost of his job, went to the FBI to complain about Officer John Hulmes.

I can’t take it seriously because these 12 people have a professional interest in defending the office that is probably the most impressive line on their resume.

I can’t take it seriously because these 12 people mostly had very short careers in the DAs office years ago and mostly do not practice criminal law in Philadelphia now. (See below) While they may be right about some of the reforms that have been put in place in the office in recent years, they have no first-hand knowledge of the DAs office today, and can give us no assurance that those reforms are enough to overcome the problems in the office to which not only Larry Krasner but Joe Khan have pointed.

And I can’t take it seriously because of the reference to George Soros, a naturalized American citizen, as a “European.” When people in 2017 start invoking anti-immigrant sentiments, I know where they stand. And it’s not with justice.

In writing about the 1960 election Arthur Schlesinger said that at the end of every truly progressive campaign some people hold back and begin to fear breaking with the past. As Machiavelli put it, it’s hard to transform political life because those who have an interest in the current system fight tenaciously to keep it while those who want change because uncertain.

We need to stand strong for real change now, and not be dissuaded by those who, whether because they lack courage or have an interest in the status quo, resist it.

The truth of this letter is that there are major cultural and structural issues that stand in the way of real reform. It is going to be hard to change the culture of the office. And it is difficult for the DA’s office to challenge cops and prosecute cops because they also need cops to do their work.

Those who wrote this letter know that and they can’t imagine anyone actually succeeding in creating real change. They would, themselves, be afraid to try to make it happen.

It’s going to take someone with courage and tenacity and willingness to create a little chaos to force change through.

And that’s why we need Larry, not someone who says the right things but hasn’t shown, in his whole life’s work, the willingness to stand fast and firm for justice. Some of the other candidates might do so as DA. But Larry is the only one of whom we can be sure, because he has done it his whole life.

Post-script.

If you do some quick googling of the the folks who signed the letter this is what you find: (Quick googling has gotten some of this wrong and I’ve made corrections. Please let me know of other errors I fix them.)

Ursula Rouse – currently works in Real Estate. Spent 2 years, 11 months in the DAs office in misdemeanor and juvenile offices. Also clerked for a homicide judge.

Richard Sax – Repeatedly held in contempt by judges for his courtroom shenanigans

Nick Liermann – Worked under Seth Williams for eight years..  Appears to practice some criminal law although his linked profile says he specializes in workers’ compensation case. 

Chris Curci – worked as a paralegal at the DA’s office, mostly under Lynn Abraham. Does not practice criminal law

Christine Prokopick –Two years at DAs office (which means it is unlikely she tried any felony or serious cases. Now works at the career office of Temple Law. Hasn’t practiced criminal law since.

Conor Shields – Spent half his career under Lynn Abraham. Doesn’t practice criminal law.

Guy D’ Andrea – Spent half his career under Lynn Abraham. Doesn’t practice criminal law.

Megan Koneski – Doesn’t work in criminal law

Senta Rhodes – Doesn’t live in Philly or practice criminal law

Christina Terebelo – Doesn’t live in Philly or practice criminal law

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