Krasner firings stir fallout in court: Cases stalled, criticism emerges

Three days after new District Attorney Larry Krasner fired 31 people in a dramatic office shakeup, the impact began to ripple through Philadelphia’s court system on Monday.

One judge took the bench and criticized the prosecutor’s office for asking to postpone a murder trial — scheduled to begin Monday — because the assistant district attorney handling the case was among those handed a pink slip.

“This court has been placed, because of the management decisions by the new district attorney, in an exceedingly difficult position today,” said Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara A. McDermott.

In a different courtroom, another judge agreed to delay a vehicular homicide trial because the prosecutor on that case had also been forced out. Lawyers were asked to return Tuesday to figure out the next step. The judge, meanwhile, ordered the defendant’s house arrest lifted immediately — saying that to maintain the restriction because of staffing issues in the prosecutor’s office was “not fair.”

And while scheduling delays are hardly a rarity at the Criminal Justice Center, a supervisor in the District Attorney’s Office acknowledged “scrambling” to adjust to the changes.

The developments were the latest aftershocks from Krasner’s staffing announcement Friday. A career defense attorney until he was sworn in as district attorney this month, Krasner had vowed to make sweeping changes to the office, which he criticized as “off the rails” during his campaign.

And while it was not clear whether the fallout from the firings would last for days or weeks, Krasner signaled Monday that he was continuing to reorganize the office.

He announced the appointment of a new victim-services supervisor, Movita Johnson-Harrell, a Philadelphia-based anti-violence activist, calling her a crucial link between his office and victims and witnesses. Johnson-Harrell lost her father, son, brother, and cousin to gun violence, Krasner said in a statement, spurring her to create a foundation in her son’s name and become an advocate on issues relating to public safety.

A spokesman said Krasner also spent part of Monday appointing new interim chiefs in certain units affected by departures.

The new district attorney has yet to publicly comment on last week’s forced resignations or explain why certain prosecutors were asked to leave. His spokesman, Ben Waxman, said in a statement Friday that the changes were part of a desire “to take the office in a different direction,” something Krasner stressed repeatedly on the campaign trail.

The impact did not sit well with the relatives of Marquan Royster, who came to court Monday for the scheduled trial of his alleged killer, Ameer Murphy, and instead learned it would be rescheduled. Royster, 18, was shot dead in March 2015 in West Philadelphia.

The delay was necessary because Krasner ousted Andrew Notaristefano, the assistant district attorney who had been handling the case.

“It makes it very hard to move on and grieve properly,” said one family member, who asked not to be identified criticizing the prosecutor’s office. “It’s like we’re basically starting from scratch again.”

On Monday, Notaristefano sat in the back of the courtroom — to support the victim’s family.

 

McDermott was critical of the impact of his firing, though she acknowledged Krasner had the right to do so. Still, she said, the District Attorney’s Office exhibited “bad management” by not developing a contingency plan earlier to replace Notaristefano. The last-minute request to delay the trial was “devastating” for both families, she added.

McDermott agreed to postpone the prosecution until April, but apologized to the packed courtroom, saying the decision brought her “dissatisfaction and unhappiness.” She also said she was planning to schedule a hearing to see whether the District Attorney’s Office could or should bear the costs of the delay — including the price of keeping Murphy behind bars for another three months.

At one point, with her frustration over several unrelated cases bubbling, she summoned Brian Zarallo — chief of the district attorney’s homicide unit — to her courtroom. Zarallo told the judge he was “scrambling” to make necessary adjustments given the sudden reduction in his staff.

“Figuring out the fallout is an ongoing process,” he said.

Royster’s supporters said Johnson-Harrell, the new victim coordinator, stopped into the courtroom with Krasner on Monday and talked to them, but that Krasner did not personally address them. They left the courtroom upset, saying the entire process left them feeling “re-victimized.”

Waxman, Krasner’s spokesman, said the new district attorney understands there will be confusion and bumps in the road during the transition, which is why he moved to quickly appoint Johnson-Harrell and brought her to court on Monday.

On a different floor, Judge Glenn Bronson had to reschedule a vehicular homicide trial because the assigned prosecutor, Thomas Lipscomb, was also a casualty of Krasner’s reorganization. In that case, defendant Hector Torres Jr. is accused of participating in a street race in August 2016, resulting in a crash and the death of a 3-year-old girl in North Philadelphia.

Bronson was not as explicit as McDermott in his reaction to the firings, but acknowledged them in agreeing to postpone the proceeding.

“It was extraordinary circumstances,” the judge said.

Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.