In the end, Sgt. Robert Wilson III never got his day in court. Not really.
Yes, his family and colleagues got to stand up in Courtroom 305 on Monday and talk about his horrific, heroic death at the hands of Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams in a North Philadelphia video game store in 2015.
But the last opportunity his family members had to mourn him, publicly, in a court of law, was turned into more of an exercise in anger than remembrance.
“We’re supposed to remain respectful, but we weren’t shown any respect,” his sister, Shaki’ra Wilson-Burroughs, said in court, displaying printout photographs of Wilson, apologizing that they weren’t of better quality. She had not had time to prepare anything else: She and her family were notified that District Attorney Larry Krasner would be offering brothers Hipps and Williams a plea deal — life in prison instead of the death penalty — not even 72 hours before the court hearing.
This is far from the norm. Families are usually given months to prepare for sentencings — not days. It’s not that previous DAs never resentenced someone or offered a plea deal. It’s that the office brought the family through the process with them, to ensure that their voices were heard, even if families didn’t agree with what the office was about to do.
But to Wilson’s family, it was just the latest insult from a District Attorney’s Office that they feel is more concerned with the defendants than with them. With Krasner’s close connections to some of the defense attorneys handling the case, and with the late phone call — at 3:58 on Friday afternoon — after months of silence from the office, they felt like an afterthought.
Through his family’s anger, bits and pieces of Wilson shone through in the courtroom — his dedication to job and family, his love for his children, his selflessness, his smile, his strength of character. No one needed to testify to his bravery, though all did.
I think, as Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O’Keefe said in handing down their life sentences without parole, plus 50 years, that Hipps and Williams are despicable, and I hope that every day that they rot in prison leaves them tormented by the cowardice and depravity of the act they committed. The only fight they were going to win against Robert Wilson III that day in the GameStop was one where the odds were stacked against him. Two on one, with guns, the brothers hid behind game displays while Wilson moved into the open to draw their fire away from the customers.
But I don’t think that Hipps and Williams should be executed for it. I don’t think the state should be in the business of executing people at all. Wilson’s is the kind of case that strains your convictions on the death penalty, but I stick by those convictions — and so has Krasner. He ran on the promise never to seek the death penalty. I’m glad he kept it.
When Krasner walked out, very notably before Wilson’s family spoke, someone shouted a curse at him. His argument fell flat for most of the audience in the courtroom, packed with people who wanted the ultimate punishment: that those sentenced to death are rarely ever executed in Pennsylvania (Gov. Wolf declared a moratorium on executions in 2015). It is not a deterrent. Life without parole is the punishment for most who kill officers in Pennsylvania. Krasner stressed that he wanted to spare Wilson’s children the decades of trauma that come from the endless litigation surrounding death penalty cases. He hung it on the kids. And though that could be the strongest argument against the death penalty, it felt disingenuous when Wilson’s family has been saying for months they feel ignored by the DA’s Office.
The death of Robert Wilson, even more than any high-profile murder case, has been politicized. When the leadership of the Fraternal Order of Police has made their life mission to stick it to Krasner, it’s hard to see their drumbeat for the death penalty here through an apolitical lens. Krasner said he has received reports of harassment and pressure against the mothers of Wilson’s children by FOP members — to the extent that he may need to take legal action. He did not elaborate other than to say they involved text messages and phone calls. FOP boss John McNesby scoffed at the allegations.
But the injustice here isn’t that Hipps and Williams escaped the death penalty, even though most of his family members would beg to differ. It’s that deaths like Wilson’s are a blow to the entire city, and his family members left feeling like the DA isn’t behind them anymore. It’s Krasner’s job to lead on this. To show grace.
He has a responsibility to speak for the people who elected him to bring reform to a badly broken criminal justice system. He has a responsibility to uphold his campaign promises. He also has a responsibility to speak for victims, and to be the sort of leader who can push for reform while making victims feel that their loss and their loved ones’ sacrifice is respected. If not revenged with death — at least respected. He didn’t do that.