As Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner attempts to overhaul the city’s criminal justice system, he faces a Democratic primary election next week against Carlos Vega, a former homicide prosecutor who is one of three dozen veteran prosecutors fired by Krasner when he took office in 2018. We speak with Linn Washington, a journalist who has covered Philadelphia’s criminal justice system for decades, who says powerful forces, including the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, have unfairly “tarred” Krasner for his reforms. “The FOP represents the very worst of the regressive approach to the criminal justice system, the very elements that Mr. Krasner is trying to reform,” Washington says. He also discusses how Krasner’s stance on Mumia Abu-Jamal may not cost him reelection but “will stain his reputation as a reformer.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: Can the Criminal Justice System Be Reformed? PBS Series “Philly D.A.” Follows Larry Krasner’s Efforts
- Part 2: “Mass Supervision”: How Restrictive Probation & Parole Systems Land People Behind Bars for Decades
- Part 3: Philly DA Larry Krasner Fights for Reelection Amid Police Union Attacks on His Reform Agenda
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is now fighting to stay in office. Next week he faces a challenge in the Democratic primary by Carlos Vega, a former homicide prosecutor who was one of three dozen veteran prosecutors fired by Krasner when he took office in 2018. During a debate last week, Vega criticized Krasner’s record and blamed him for a spike in murders and shootings in Philadelphia.
CARLOS VEGA: We don’t need to make a choice between reform or safety. We need both. We deserve both. Mr. Krasner, you have blood on your hands: Milan Loncar, a young man walking his dog; Travon Register, 6-year-old boy beaten to death; Zamar Jones, 7-year-old boy killed on his porch; Corporal O’Connor, killed in the line of duty; Gladys Coriano, a domestic violence victim shot in front of her house; Dominic Billa, young man shot in the Franklin Mills Mall. These are just a few of the victims that we can directly put on the incompetence of Larry Krasner.
AMY GOODMAN: In response to Carlos Vega, incumbent DA Larry Krasner defended his first term, saying he’s followed through on his promise to reform Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.
LARRY KRASNER: First of all, we have a crisis with shootings. It is with fatal and nonfatal shootings. And the truth is that we have a nearly 85% conviction rate with those cases. That is among the very highest in five years. It is comparable to other cities in a very favorable way. It’s a very high rate compared to other cities. And we did it without cheating. Part of the reason we’ve had 20 exonerations is we were dealing with an office, when my opponent was there, where the truth didn’t matter. And so, if you could convict someone, you convicted them. It might be the wrong person. They might sit in jail for 20 years or 25 years. That didn’t get us anywhere. What we have to do is we have to bring things that work. And we’ve done that.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Philadelphia by investigative journalist Linn Washington, who’s covered the city’s criminal justice system for decades, recently wrote a column for WHYY headlined “Krasner’s stance on Mumia won’t cost him re-election. But it will stain his reputation as a reformer.” Still with us, Ted Passon, co-creator and director of the PBS series Philly D.A.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Linn, if you can talk about the scope of this race, what it looks like? Of course, his opponent in the Democratic primary is supported by the FOP, the Fraternal Order of Police.
LINN WASHINGTON JR.: And I think that endorsement by the FOP for the challenger of Larry Krasner, Mr. Vega, is very telling. The FOP represents the very worst of regressive approach to the criminal justice system, the very elements that Mr. Krasner is trying to reform. And here is Mr. Vega, who’s claiming that he’s different, aligning himself with the very ideology, as well as individuals, who have created the problems that we now have in the city of Philadelphia, where we have a justice system that is not operating in a just manner. The prime ethical mandate for prosecutors is to seek justice, not convictions. And this has been a part of Pennsylvania case law since 1889, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision came down that enunciated the role for prosecutors is justice.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Linn, first of all, greetings. We haven’t spoken in quite a while. We were former colleagues at the Philadelphia Daily News many years ago. I wanted to ask you, this whole approach — some people are saying, “Well, Krasner, crime has risen and violence has risen during Krasner’s time in office,” when the reality is, all across the nation, there have been spikes in crime in many cities. And some people, myself included, believe that we’re actually witnessing a national police slowdown that is occurring across the country as police are chafing at the attempts to control the way that they mete out abuse of citizens. I’m wondering your sense of — will this stick on Krasner, that he’s responsible for the rise in crime and shootings in Philadelphia?
LINN WASHINGTON JR.: Well, the reality is, yes, he’s been assigned that label, and assigned that label falsely. From the day he stepped into office, the Fraternal Order of Police and persons like his challenger, Mr. Vega, have said that, “Larry Krasner, crime is going to be off the charts. You have to watch out for him. This reform is going to make people unsafe.” Not true.
As you’ve indicated there, crime has gone up across the country. And as crime has gone up, there’s been an appreciable decrease in policing. In Philadelphia, a vast majority of the crimes, and particularly homicides, are unsolved. And if the police are not making any arrests, then prosecutors can’t prosecute the cases. So it is intellectually improper to say, “You’re not prosecuting homicide cases,” when in fact the police are not bringing the cases to them. And according to Mr. Krasner, the cases that are brought to him are fraught with lack of evidence.
And if Krasner is trying to do something different from what was the policy and practice of that office for decades, where they would just go in, irrespective of incongruities in evidence, they would just put people in prison, put people in prison, that’s their job — that’s wrong, and that’s what Larry Krasner has been fighting against. Yet he has been — quite frankly, he’s been tarred by not only the FOP, but conservative politicians. And even during his time in office, the then-U.S. attorney in Philadelphia was very critical of the reforms. And this is a person who, as the chief enforcement officer for the federal government, should not have been taking that kind of a posture, yet – you have to understand the context — he was with the Trump administration, where a president openly endorsed brutality in the name of law and order.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Linn, I did want to ask you about a criticism that you had of Krasner: his handling of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, arguably the most famous prisoner worldwide, U.S. prisoner worldwide. And you conducted, more than 10 years ago, a ballistics test — and I think Ted Passon actually filmed that — in terms of raising real questions about what happened, again, with the evidence in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. Can you talk about your criticism of Krasner and his failure to act on this case?
LINN WASHINGTON JR.: Well, the column laid out that Mr. Krasner has done what his predecessors have not done, and that’s seek justice. Thus he has reversed the convictions of about 20 people so far. There’s a vast number more that should be, but you have to give him credit for what he did. In each of those instances, there have been very clear and compelling evidence of misconduct, not only by police in the initial investigation, but prosecutors in how, in many instances, they persecuted the cases.
Now, how does that apply to the Abu-Jamal case? The evidence that led Krasner’s office to seek reversal of convictions for 20 people so far, commendably, is far less than the evidence of misconduct by police, prosecutors and judges in the Abu-Jamal case. So, if you are a reformer, as Krasner is, then it’s easy to take on certain cases, but the real dividing line is when you take on the hard case. Reality, there is an institutional bias against Abu-Jamal that goes from the police officers on the beat in Philadelphia all the way up through the justices on the Supreme Court of the United States.
So, that was the essence of the column, that when you look at the evidence that is supposedly underlying Abu-Jamal’s conviction, you see gross, gross errors in there, and you don’t need a law degree or a Ph.D. to see those, one of which is what you just mentioned, the bullet test that we did. According to the prosecution, Abu-Jamal straddled the officer that he was convicted of killing, shooting downward four times, only hitting the officer once. If in fact it happened that way, then you would see bullet marks in the sidewalk. In all of the crime scene photos that were produced in court, there were no bullet marks. We, in fact, took those crime scene photos, sent them to a person at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory whose job is to enhance photos from deep space, you know, like Saturn and Uranus, way out on the end of the solar system. That person analyzed these photos with a supercomputer and found no bullet marks. So, if there’s no bullet marks from the scenario of Abu-Jamal shooting those bullets, then that just is one exhibit A of the errors in that case. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Linn Washington, we’re going to have to leave it there.
LINN WASHINGTON JR.: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But I want to thank you so much for being with us, and also Ted Passon and Nicole Salazar, directors and producers, co-creators of the PBS series Philly D.A., now airing nationally and online. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Wear a mask.