May 14, 2021
Voters will likely decide the future of the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office on May 18, when the Democratic primary election pits incumbent Larry Krasner against longtime homicide prosecutor Carlos Vega, culminating a heated race that has centered on the city's epidemic of gun violence.
Krasner, 60, spent more than 30 years as a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Philadelphia before he was elected D.A. in 2017 on a platform of progressive criminal justice reform. His office has prioritized reducing incarceration through cash bail reform, freeing wrongfully convicted people, pursuing police misconduct and targeting serious crime instead of minor offenses.
Vega, 64, spent 35 years as an assistant prosecutor in Philadelphia under multiple administrations, taking the lead on about 450 homicide cases. He has campaigned for what he calls a "third way," blending the goals of reform with aggressively tackling the city's current crisis of violent crime. The city cannot "incarcerate ourselves out of this problem," Vega said.
Vega was among a group of 31 prosecutors at the D.A.'s office who were fired shortly after Krasner took office in 2018, ushering in a staff whose steadfast mission has been the pursuit of racial equity and systemic change.
The Democratic primary is typically considered the race that will determine the next district attorney, since Philadelphia's base of registered Democrats far outnumbers Republican voters. The lone Republican running for D.A. in 2021 is longtime criminal defense attorney Chuck Peruto, another Krasner critic whose campaign also has centered on runaway violence in the city.
Four years after Krasner's election heralded a progressive wave in urban criminal justice, the mixed results of the D.A.'s reform agenda have been placed under a microscope in 2021.
Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, violent crime has surged in Philadelphia – 499 homicides were recorded in 2020 and the city already has more than 190 in 2021, up 40% compared to the same period last year. Non-fatal shooting incidents also have spiked over the past year.
Vega's challenge to Krasner, backed by the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, has focused on what his campaign deems ineffective and inadequate crime deterrence and prosecution. Homicides have increased each year in Philadelphia under Krasner, even prior to the pandemic.
But the acute problems seen in Philadelphia during the COVID-19 crisis are mirrored across much of the United States. Major American cities saw a 33% increase in homicides in 2020, and 63 of the 66 largest police jurisdictions in the country experienced an increase in at least one category of violent crime last year, a trend that is continuing into 2021.
Vega has directed particular attention to falling conviction rates for illegal gun possession arrests in Philadelphia. This has occurred despite a large increase in the number of illegal weapons arrests last year, an arrest rate that has accelerated so far in 2021.
"You need D.A.s that are properly trained when they have gun cases – and when I say gun cases, I mean murder, gunpoint robberies, carjackings or a felon having an illegal gun," Vega told PhillyVoice on Friday. "You need trained D.A.s to successfully prosecute those cases and follow up with appropriate sentencing. That's how you address the safety issue."
During a televised debate on May 5, Vega argued the falling conviction rate has created a city that has "no consequences" for violent crime. He focused on a period from the start of 2021 through April 30, claiming there were 785 gun-related cases in the courts – homicides, shootings, gunpoint robberies, aggravated assaults and illegal gun possession – which resulted in only 24 convictions. More than 500 cases were dismissed or withdrawn, according Vega's data.
Krasner called Vega's use of 2021 statistics deceitful and timed for the campaign, though his own public data dashboard shows that dismissed and withdrawn cases have risen since he took office, among all offenses and violent crimes in particular.
"He's not talking about the same group of cases when he talks about ones that were thrown out and ones that were new," Krasner said. "He knows very well that cases that started this year are not ending this year."
Krasner has attributed the downward trend in illegal gun possession convictions, specifically, to a changed landscape in law enforcement practices.
"Part of the reason for this multiyear decline in conviction rates for gun possession cases is (that) the quality of the cases has changed," Krasner said at the debate. "We went from a system of stop-and-frisk, some of it illegal, to a system of massive stops of cars in certain neighborhoods, most of them Black and Brown neighborhoods. The truth is, some of this is 'Driving While Black,' and when you stop a car, there's Constitutional issues, but there also may be an issue that there's five people in a car and the gun's in the trunk. That's a weak case."
In fatal and non-fatal shooting incidents, Krasner said his office has a conviction rate of nearly 85% during his first term.
"That is among the very highest in five years," Krasner said. "It is comparable to other cities in a very favorable way."
Krasner said his office also has made a concerted effort not to "cheat" on convictions that may wrongfully put defendants behind bars. Over the past few years, his office has secured 20 exonerations of such defendants who were wrongfully convicted during prior administrations.
Specifically, Krasner has pointed to Vega's role as a prosecutor in the 2016 retrial of Anthony Wright, a Philadelphia man who was convicted in the 1991 rape and murder of an elderly woman at her North Philadelphia home.
Wright, who spent 25 years behind bars, claimed he made a false confession under the threat of physical violence from detectives. Subsequent advances in DNA forensic technology later helped Wright's legal counselors at the Innocence Project determine that key evidence in the case could not be connected to him. Wright was acquitted on all charges in 2016 and was later awarded nearly $10 million in damages in a settlement with the city. Vega was one of the prosecutors restating the case against him five years ago.
Though Vega has downplayed his role in the retrial, the Innocence Project published a letter in April indicating that Vega maintained his belief in Wright's guilt during the 2016 retrial and still has not apologized for seeking to put him back in prison.
Amid this fiery campaign, Vega signaled this month that he may sue Krasner for libel concerning remarks the D.A. has made about his role in the Wright case, a move Krasner called "baseless." Vega already has joined other former prosecutors who are suing Krasner for their dismissal from the D.A.'s office in 2018, claiming they were discriminated against because of their ages.
The removal of senior prosecutors is among the reasons Vega claims Krasner's office has an experience gap in coordinating case work and effectively arguing in court, a problem that becomes magnified when dangerous individuals later go on to commit violent crimes.
"To fire 31 people, if you think of it as a law firm, you're at a severe disadvantage because it's the older people that train the younger D.A.s, not just the unit chiefs," Vega said. "My years in office, I was mentored by older, more experienced D.A.s. You talk in your office all the time about your cases, tactics and what to do."
As a homicide prosecutor, Vega said he often spoke with police, educating them about what they can do better with their policing or tactics. He said that brought measurable results under former D.A.s, especially in combination with a strongly run police department headed by Charles Ramsey from 2008-2016, a period when homicides had been declining in the city.
"Under Ramsey, the police and the district attorney's office were working together," Vega said. "I think there was maybe more community engagement. And cases were prosecuted successfully with a well-trained D.A. who was successful in court, working with the police and figuring out what was being done right or wrong."
Krasner has defended his staff vigorously, praising their educational backgrounds, diversity and focus on data. He argued minor offenses don't bear any relationship with the city's gun violence problem and his office doesn't plan to abandon that stance in a second term.
"We are always sensitive to whether any of our policies may have bad edges to them or bad points in them," Krasner said. "That's why we have a data lab in the D.A.'s office that never existed before. This is a grant-funded group – 15 professional data analysts and a criminologist who I hired on the staff, the first criminologist ever in the office. We study all of our policies to see which ones we think are working or not."
For much of the candidates' TV debate, Vega challenged Krasner's record using prosecution statistics that the D.A. insisted were "mashed-up" for political effect.
Krasner accused Vega of presenting data selectively and without regard for the clogged court system and other extreme conditions created by the public health crisis. Vega's depiction amounted to a "lasagna of lies" intended to funnel blame for Philadelphia's unchecked violence into the D.A.'s office, Krasner argued.
Vega accuses Krasner of not working well with other law enforcement agencies, labeling the district attorney's relationships with the Philadelphia Police Department, Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office and U.S. Attorney's Office as "fragmented." Vega said he would aim to bridge this gap with a "focused deterrence" program that targets Philadelphia's violent criminals.
"With that program, you work with other agencies – the state Attorney General's Office, the federal government, FBI, DEA and the like, and the police department," Vega said. "You get those resources. You investigate that small group of people causing the violence, at which point then you bring the mayor, City Council, community leaders – you bring in call-in sessions with those people perpetrating violence. And you give them a choice. 'We know what you're doing, and we want you to put down the guns. If not, we will come after you."'
Krasner claims Philadelphia's Gun Violence Initiative already does what Vega has promised by using a "group violence intervention" model. The program focuses on hot-spot areas of crime where the city's highest-risk individuals – many of them repeat offenders – can be offered incentives for compliance and face serious consequences for criminal activity. Krasner also said his office has developed an intelligence unit that places prosecutors on a task force with police to review weekly cases and determine whether the evidence collected is strong enough.
A spokesperson for the Krasner campaign rejected the perception that the D.A. does not have strong relationships with partner agencies in law enforcement. The combative tone struck by former U.S. Attorney William McSwain, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, was an intentionally adversarial setup, the spokesperson told PhillyVoice.
"(McSwain's) motivations were purely political – he put himself on a billboard, after all – and he, like the rest of the Trump administration, did not care about the safety of Philadelphians. He cared about political stunts," the spokesperson said.
The Krasner campaign pointed to key endorsements from local elected officials and the Guardian Civic League – Philadelphia's chapter of the National Black Police Association – as indications of support for his record during his first term. The campaign also highlighted a gun violence task force investigation with Attorney General Josh Shapiro that resulted in the arrests of nine individuals connected to 18 shootings dating back to 2016.
"In a second term, (Krasner) will continue strengthening these relationships to make sure that across city and state government, we implement solutions that improve the provision of justice in this city and keep the community safe," the Krasner campaign spokesperson said.
But with mounting homicide cases and families ravaged by loss, Vega has repeated during his campaign that Krasner has "blood on his hands" for the policies and performance of his office. During the debate, he referenced the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Milan Loncar in Brewerytown on Jan. 13. The victim's sister wrote an open letter to Krasner, blaming his office for "negligence and lack of interest" in keeping Loncar's shooter behind bars for multiple prior offenses.
Vega argued Krasner's office has been too lenient with offenders like 20-year-old Josephus Davis, who is charged with murder in Loncar's killing. Davis previously had been charged with two robberies, a carjacking and an assault of a prison guard while in custody, but two judges reduced his bail in these cases and allowed him out of jail for $3,200.
Krasner contends the courts ultimately hold the decisive role in determining bail, but families of many Philadelphia crime victims have increasingly grown weary of a pattern of offenders remaining free and later committing deadly crimes.
In the Loncar case, Vega said Krasner's D.A.s were "woefully unprepared" to argue against reduced bail for Davis and failed to immediately appeal to a Common Pleas judge to make a stronger case.
"He has blamed the judges dismissing cases. He has blamed the police for poor police work," said Vega, who this week was endorsed by former governor and former mayor Ed Rendell. "But think about it. Before 2018, we had the same police, the same judges. It's not like we got a new core of judges. The only difference that occurred is Krasner and the poor training his D.A.'s are getting."
Even among Krasner's progressive base, there has been discontent among those who believe his reform efforts have not gone far enough to eliminate cash bail entirely – placing the D.A. between opposing camps that see different causes of violent crime in Philadelphia that they believe demand divergent solutions.
During the debate, Krasner stressed his view that the city's violence problems ultimately are not about the handling and outcome of cases, but rather a lack of sustained prevention resources and programs.
"Pretending that what happens in a courtroom somehow brings back the loved one you have lost, pretending that just doing that is going to fix it, is completely untrue," Krasner said. "We have to go to prevention. We have to move heavily and invest heavily in prevention. No family wants to hear, 'My child is dead and that man got a long sentence.' What they want to hear is, 'My child was never shot.'"
Vega's campaign has placed a similar emphasis on prevention, and he has said he supports diversion and treatment programs for nonviolent criminals, especially those struggling with addiction.
But when it comes to repeat low-level offenders and especially violent criminals, Vega said Friday that Philadelphia needs stronger prosecution, stricter consequences and more community involvement in deterrence to offer these individuals a different path from reoffending.
"They could take advantage of those programs of education, training and job opportunities," Vega said. "But if they commit a crime, then we're going to prosecute them fully – locally or federally."
The May 18 primary is shaping up to be one of the most contested city elections for district attorney in recent memory. Thousands of Republicans reportedly have switched their voter registrations to Democrat in order to have a voice in the race and perhaps put Krasner's tenure in jeopardy.
Krasner and Vega each have received strong endorsements from city leaders, wards and unions in Philadelphia as the race enters its final days.
And with high crime in focus alongside the larger concerns about systemic injustice that originally swept Krasner into office, Philadelphia voters' decision will carry the weight of expectations that progress must be achieved on both fronts.