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Meet Larry Krasner: Civil Rights Attorney, Death Penalty Opponent & Democratic Philly DA Candidate

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Will a defense attorney with a long record of standing up to prosecutors and police soon head one of the nation’s busiest district attorney offices? We speak with civil rights attorney Larry Krasner, who is considered the front-runner in the race to become Philadelphia’s next district attorney after he overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary last month. Over his career, Krasner has represented protesters with Black Lives Matter, Grannies for Peace, ACT UP and Occupy Philadelphia. He’s promised to never seek the death penalty.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Clash’s “Clampdown,” sung by Philly rock 'n' roll band Sheer Mag, joined onstage by our next guest, Philadelphia district attorney candidate Larry Krasner. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, will a defense attorney with a long record of standing up to prosecutors and police soon head one of the nation’s most busy district attorney offices? In Philadelphia, civil rights attorney Larry Krasner is poised to become the city’s next district attorney, after overwhelmingly winning the Democratic primary last month. Philadelphia is a solidly Democratic city, and the odds for winning November’s general election are in Krasner’s favor, with Democrats commanding a seven-to-one registration advantage.

Over his career as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, Krasner has represented protesters with Black Lives Matter, Grannies for Peace, ACT UP, Occupy Philadelphia and other progressive groups. He’s a longtime opponent of capital punishment who’s promised to never seek the death penalty. Philadelphia jails more people than any other city in the Northeast, and Krasner is on record opposing police stop-and-frisk policies. He told The Intercept he hopes to create a team that will investigate and prosecute police and public officials for abuses.

This is a clip from an ad released by Krasner’s campaign.

BERT ELMORE: When I heard Larry said he was going to run, I said, “He’s going to run for DA? Perfect. I’m in.”

KITTY HEITE: I think, unlike any other candidate in the DA’s race, Larry is calling for a new approach.

MARGIE POLITZER: I’ve been aware of Larry Krasner since the ’90s, when he was defending protesters involved with ACT UP.

MICHAEL COARD: I knew Larry because he and I worked together pro bono in representing activists. He’s the attorney for Black Lives Matter.

AMY GOODMAN: As an attorney, Larry Krasner has never prosecuted a case, but instead spent his career representing protesters and the economically disadvantaged. He has also filed over 75 civil rights cases against police officers and successfully gotten some 800 narcotics convictions thrown out by revealing two officers perjured themselves.

For more, we’re joined in studio by Larry Krasner himself, the longtime criminal defense and civil rights attorney, the Democratic nominee for district attorney for Philadelphia.

Larry Krasner, welcome to Democracy Now!

LARRY KRASNER: Thank you. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to run for district attorney? You’ve gone after prosecutors for decades.

LARRY KRASNER: Well, I have spent 30 years being in court—criminal court, that is—four to five days a week. And I’ve been watching what I view as a slow-motion car crash for all that time. We have more and more people in jail all the time, and yet the rate of—the rate of poverty, the rate of infant mortality, the rate of suffering, in many ways, doesn’t get better, and we don’t get safer. So, you know, I think the truth is, when you read a report card and it’s all Fs, something needs to change. And I felt like there was no other candidate who wanted to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how were you able to catch fire with the voters, given the fact that there are—there were quite a few candidates running, several of them with other progressive positions similar to yours, but you managed to eke out a—not just a minor victory, but a big victory?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, I don’t think it was really about me. I think it was about the ideas. I think the reality is that, especially in a place like Philadelphia, which is 80 percent Democratic, and it’s about 50 percent nonwhite, you’re dealing with people who don’t want the death penalty. They realize it’s nothing but a waste of money. They want their public schools. They don’t want mass incarceration. They want treatment for people who are suffering from the disease that is addiction. And they also don’t want civil asset forfeiture, cash bail, these other measures that effectively just step on the necks of the poor and don’t make us any safer.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you, the—because you’ve been a defense attorney, you’re well aware that a huge portion of a part of the legal system is basically plea bargaining. It’s not actual criminal trials where guilt and innocence is determined by a jury of your peers, but it’s basically prosecutors forcing defendants to somehow or other plea bargain to get a reduced sentence rather than risk a longer term. How would you, as district attorney, try to change that?

LARRY KRASNER: Well, you know, plea bargains always have been and always will be a part of the system. The problem that we have now is that they’re done in such a coercive fashion. They’re coercive because very often poor people sit in jail from the moment they’re arrested, and they’re effectively serving a sentence. So by the time they finally come up to their court date, the incentive to plead guilty, even if you’re innocent, is very high. And the other thing that goes on is that people are punished, and often very severely, for taking a case to trial. This is how we have coercive plea bargains.

I don’t believe that people should be punished for exercising their constitutional right to a trial, you know, and that’s not something that I intend to do as district attorney. We need to be responsible in how we approach this. We need to be even-handed. We need to seek justice. And justice doesn’t mean maximizing convictions by coercive means or maximizing sentences.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to candidate Donald Trump, who called for a nationwide stop-and-frisk program at a town hall meeting hosted by Fox News. This is a town hall participant, Ricardo Simms, questioning Trump.

RICARDO SIMMS: There’s been a lot of violence in the black community. I want to know what would you do to help stop that violence, you know, black-on-black crime.

DONALD TRUMP: Right. Well, one of the things I’d do, Ricardo, is I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to. We did it in New York. It worked incredibly well. And you have to be proactive. And, you know, you—you really help people sort of change their mind automatically. You understand. You—you have to have—in my opinion, I see what’s going on here. I see what’s going on in Chicago. I think stop-and-frisk—in New York City, it was so incredible the way it worked. Now, we had a very good mayor, but New York City was incredible the way that worked. So I think that would be one step you could do.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Donald Trump. Larry Krasner, what is the New York version of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia, and what’s your position on it?

LARRY KRASNER: So, Donald Trump, needless to say, is the gift that just keeps on giving. So much wisdom. It’s a disaster. I mean, stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia, in fact, results in the following. Fifty young men—it’s almost always young men—the vast majority people of color, get searched. They find something one out of 50 times. They find a gun one out of 400 times. But what they are doing, of course, is they are alienating over and over the other 49 young men, mostly young men. They’re reminding them that they’re poor. They’re reminding them that there are certain neighborhoods where police will do whatever they want. And they are creating an environment in which those young men don’t want to be police officers and in which those young people do not want to share information with the police about a shooting that may be about to happen or about a shooting of their friend that has already happened. This is the destruction of intelligence-based policing in which information is actually shared. This is the genesis of the “don’t snitch” culture. What you have here is—thanks to Rudy Giuliani and other people like Trump, you have this incredible divide, which has been created by a policy that is unconstitutional.

AMY GOODMAN: The Fraternal Order of Police is very powerful in Philadelphia.

LARRY KRASNER: Fraternal Order of Police believes it’s very powerful in Philadelphia. I would submit, if you look at the results of the last election, not so much. But I don’t say that to gloat. You know, the problem is not the rank-and-file police in Philadelphia, many of whom are very good people. The problem is that the leadership of the FOP, unfortunately, during the campaign, engaged in rhetoric that was very much Frank Rizzo-era throwback, reactionary rhetoric. This is the same group that was on record as having endorsed Donald Trump in a city that is 80 percent Democratic, to the absolute outrage of the women and—women officers and the officers of color. The Guardian Civic League, which is the black union of police in Philadelphia, did a press conference over how upset they were about that. So, you know, the leadership of the FOP has been pretty good at attracting attention during the election cycle. But they have also asked to meet with me, have met with me and are now talking in a different fashion.

What concerns me is not them, because, in fact, the leader is not even a police officer. What concerns me is the police commissioner. And we’ve had two fairly progressive police commissioners in a row. He and I have an excellent relationship. We’ve met. We’ve spoken by telephone. And while we will disagree on some things, I’m much more concerned with working with the police department as opposed to worrying about some throwback head of a police union.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your ability to run for the seat was helped by the fact that the current district attorney is now facing trial for corruption himself. And it was not that long ago, wasn’t it, that the state attorney general in Pennsylvania also faced criminal charges herself? I’m wondering your sense of what’s going on where now even the prosecutors are ending up on corruption trials in Pennsylvania.

LARRY KRASNER: You know, unfortunately, for as long as I have been practicing, which is 30 years, the people who have become district attorneys in Philadelphia County have been politicians, and ultimately their goal was not to stop in the District Attorney’s Office. It was to become governor or to become senator, whatever it may be. It goes all the way back to Arlen Specter, Ed Rendell, Lynne Abraham and now Seth Williams. So it’s not surprising to me that they end up embroiled in corruption scandals, because, the truth is, they’re mostly running for higher office. It has been, to a very large extent, an exercise of ego.

I really don’t want to run for anything else, didn’t—wasn’t even sure I wanted to run for this, until things got kind of out of hand. So, you know, I think I’m coming at it from a different perspective, which is that I have worked from the outside for justice for a very long time, and I now see an opportunity to be more effective on the inside, and that’s what I’d like to do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you—do you fear that the career prosecutors in that office are going to—because there have been some reports that there’s thoughts of open rebellion, of people resigning. And, you know, people are used to watching Law & Order and seeing the heroic battle of prosecutors in New York City and other places. Is your sense is that there’s going to be rebellion in the ranks when you come in?

LARRY KRASNER: No, not at all. The reality is that, once again, there are certain people who are trying to, you know, use publicity to indicate that there’s more dissent than there actually is. I’m looking forward to working with a lot of these prosecutors. Many of their personal cellphones are in my phone, because I am in court four to five days a week for 30 years trying cases with them all the time. And there are some people in there who are not just good, they’re truly excellent. Some of these folks have been feeding me information about police corruption that they could not address within the office without causing problems for their own career. So I’m looking forward to working with them.

But there is no question that in this location, as in many other locations across the United States where progressive prosecutors have come in, there will be some change of the guard. There has to be. When Josh Shapiro became the state attorney general in Pennsylvania, he dismissed about 13, 14 percent of the district attorneys in his office, a similarly sized office of about 300 attorneys and a bunch of staff. And no one thought that was strange. There’s nothing unusual about coming in and having some changing of the guard, because, otherwise, you would be violating your promises to try to achieve the cultural change that you have argued is necessary.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you ever pursue the death penalty in a case?

LARRY KRASNER: No.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

LARRY KRASNER: So many reasons, but let me just quantify it for a moment. I think we all understand the moral arguments on this point. Pennsylvania has not executed anyone against his will since 1962, when I was was 1 year old. Three people wanted to die in the 1990s, and they were permitted to doing so. But during that period of time, there have been six exonerations of innocent people from death row. And there has been over $1 billion spent in the pursuit of executions that are never imposed. A billion dollars, if you break it down, turns out to be, at $40,000 a head, about 500 schoolteachers or social workers or young police officers across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania every year for the last 50 years. We know that measures like good public education stop crime, reduce homicides. We know that. And we also know that there’s no evidence that the death penalty actually reduces crime. I see no value in destroying our public schools, which is exactly what’s going on, in favor of a penalty that is never imposed, and shouldn’t be, or we would be executing, frankly, significant numbers of innocent people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering—perhaps the most famous prisoner from Philadelphia, if not in the entire country, is Mumia Abu-Jamal. And you’re familiar, obviously, with his long history and his case. I’m wondering your thoughts on how justice was served in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

LARRY KRASNER: Well, you know, as someone who may very well be the next district attorney, I have to be extremely careful about what I would say in advance of being in office, because it could become a basis for an argument that I should not be involved in that case. So, in this case, as with other significant cases in Philadelphia, for example, the investigation around the shooting and killing of Brandon Tate-Brown, I’m not commenting during this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you’ve represented so many different groups—Black Lives Matter, Occupy and many different groups forming a kind of resistance right now to President Trump. You—many of your supporters were Bernie Sanders supporters. Do you see yourself carrying on his fight?

LARRY KRASNER: I think—I think the short answer is yes. You know, I think that while Bernie Sanders did not have quite as detailed a platform on criminal justice as I would have liked to see, that this campaign is much more in the tradition of Bernie Sanders.

The most exciting thing, in my view, to come out of this campaign is that in the last two similar election cycles for DA, there were about 105,000 and 110,000 total votes each time; this time, there were 150,000 votes. The reason the national Republican Party and Democratic Party are noticing what’s happening here is not me. What they’re noticing is that in a state that was lost by Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump by 40,000 votes, in a single city, in an off-year election, about 45,000 new votes have turned out. There is a gold mine of untapped progressive votes. And there is a coalition of African-American and progressive votes that, unfortunately, Bernie Sanders was not able to tap as well as he might have liked. But they’re there. And this could be—not me, but this—could be a model for what is possible across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Larry Krasner, we want to thank you for being with us, criminal defense and civil rights attorney, Democratic nominee for district attorney for Philadelphia. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the Republican nominee, the contender for district attorney for Philadelphia. Stay with us.

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