Philly DA Larry Krasner is changing the way his office prosecutes killers. Not everyone agrees

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has begun significantly altering the way the city prosecutes homicide cases, questioning the idea — mandated under state law — that most convicted killers should be sent to prison for life, and saying prosecutors should be aware of how that approach has swelled Pennsylvania’s prison population.

Since taking office in January, Krasner has encouraged his staff to consider shorter sentences in plea deals and to weigh if homicide is the proper charge, and has declared he must personally approve any plea offer with a proposed prison term greater than 15 to 30 years.

The behind-the-scenes effort, engineered by Krasner and his new chief of homicide, Anthony Voci, is thematically consistent with other more forgiving policies the district attorney has unveiled during his first three months in office. It also reflects Krasner’s broader goal of reducing the number of people behind bars.

But the changes in homicide prosecutions have encountered early pushback from victims’ families, some assistant district attorneys, and even Common Pleas Court judges, offering Krasner a dose of resistance as he seeks to reshape the city’s criminal justice system.

One murder victim’s brother, who had spent three decades monitoring the case in a bid for justice, said the District Attorney’s Office — in an apparent violation of state law — failed to let him know that it was asking a judge to remove the killer from death row and instead impose a life prison term.

“We were totally unaware,” said Steven Bernstein, who learned of Joseph Kindler’s resentencing from an Inquirer and Daily News reporter. “Why couldn’t they find a way to contact us? Our names are all over the case for the last 35 years.”

In another case, Voci sought to dismiss a third-degree-murder count against a bar bouncer who fatally shot his manager during a fight in Germantown. The assistant district attorney handling the prosecution questioned that approach and was reassigned. She ultimately resigned.

And in a third case, a judge rejected the office’s request for a defendant to receive a prison sentence of 22½ to 44½ years if he pleaded guilty to fatally shooting a man during a 2015 street robbery. The victim’s family said prosecutors did not tell them about the offer until after proposing it to the judge.

Krasner and Voci acknowledged that there have been some “growing pains” in implementing new policies and ushering in a new culture regarding homicide prosecutions. In terms of dealing with families, Krasner said: “We recognize our own failures. We are trying to correct that every day as we move forward.”

But he said a philosophical shift in homicide cases is necessary because more than 5,000 people in Pennsylvania are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole — the state’s mandatory sentence for anyone convicted of first- or second-degree murder. Only Florida has more inmates serving such sentences, according to a report from the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

And although Philadelphia has averaged 272 murders a year over the last five years, Krasner said that taking a different approach to charging decisions, plea offers, and trials can allow even violent cases to be handled with more nuance than in the past. His office is not afraid to ask for long prison sentences, he said, and he pointed to a packet of homicide cases on his desk that had plea offers with minimum terms of incarceration ranging from 22 to 38 years.

He also said his own experience as a defense attorney has taught him that people accused of crimes can range from the decent or redeemable to “pure evil,” and that prosecutions should better reflect that spectrum of reality.

“It is simply not normal to be in a state with so many people doing life without parole and to be unwilling to look at alternatives,” Krasner said in an interview last week. “What I am proposing here is using a scalpel instead of a chainsaw.”

Policy vs. practice

Still, big-picture aspirations can be tricky to implement. Just ask Steven Bernstein.

He said he has followed the decades-long case against Kindler, his brother’s killer, because Kindler “did everything he could to subvert the system.”

Camera icon Bernstein family
David Bernstein, 18, was killed in 1982 by Joseph Kindler.

Bernstein’s brother David, 18, had agreed in 1982 to testify against Kindler about burglaries they had committed in Philadelphia and Montgomery County. But before getting the chance, he was found dead in the Delaware River with nearly two dozen wounds from a baseball bat and a concrete block tied around his neck.

After Kindler was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he twice escaped from prison — in Philadelphia and later in Canada, where he’d fled and fought extradition after being captured. He was sent back to Pennsylvania in 1991.

In 2011, Kindler became eligible for a new sentencing hearing thanks to a federal court decision. Steven Bernstein and his wife, Claire, who live in Maryland,  have remained engaged in the proceedings “to make sure, regardless of outcome …[that] justice gets done correctly,” he said.

Bernstein said he had been in touch with prosecutors about the case as recently as last fall. His preference was to let a jury decide whether Kindler should be let off death row.

But last month, Voci appeared before Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi and said prosecutors agreed with Kindler’s attorneys: He deserved a life sentence. The judge accepted the decision. Voci was the only witness to appear on David Bernstein’s behalf.

Steven Bernstein said Voci did not contact him about the case.

“We had never been ignored before,” Bernstein said. “This is why we were so horrified.”

Camera icon Steven Bernstein
Steven Bernstein and his wife, Claire, have followed the case against the man convicted of killing Steven’s brother for more than three decades.

Jennifer Storm, who for four years has been a voice for crime victims as the head of the state’s Office of Victim Advocate, called the situation  a “complete violation” of Bernstein’s rights.

Under state law, Storm said, Bernstein “should have been notified and should have had the ability to talk” to the office about the decision. He also should have been able to speak at Kindler’s resentencing hearing, Storm said. Currently, victims’ relatives have little recourse if their rights are violated, Storm said, but she is pushing legislation that would strengthen the protections.

Voci acknowledged that not contacting Bernstein was a “mistake,” but chalked it up to a “miscommunication” between himself and a victim coordinator.

He also said that Bernstein’s sister, Donna Vernick, had previously met with Kindler in prison and expressed support for his release from death row.

Steven Bernstein said his sister did meet Kindler in prison, but only after Kindler’s father had visited her home several times — which Bernstein described as “chilling.”

In any case, Voci did not talk to Bernstein’s sister. She died in 2014.

On March 19, Bernstein sent letters to the judge and Krasner’s office asking them to reconsider his new sentence.

Voci said last week that he never received the letter and was unaware of it.

External and internal resistance

Celestine Shorts said she also has felt blindsided by Krasner’s office.

Her brother, Christopher Johnson, was shot dead in January 2017 during a fight with Edward Morgan at Sharon’s Little Spot, the Germantown bar where both men worked.

Morgan, the bouncer, admitted he fired his gun at Johnson, the manager, during a fight in a back room. There were no witnesses; Morgan called 911, cooperated with police, and said he acted in self-defense.

Twice this winter — just weeks before trial — prosecutors sought to persuade a judge to dismiss the third-degree-murder count lodged against Morgan. Voci, who argued the second time, said he believed the facts in the case suggested Morgan should be tried only on voluntary manslaughter and possession of an instrument of crime.

But Common Pleas Court Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd rejected both requests, saying that prosecutors at trial could choose to ignore the murder charge — but that he would not agree to toss it without first hearing evidence in the case.

Johnson’s best friend, Van Desper, said later that Voci “defended the defendant better than his own counsel.”

Shorts, the victim’s sister, said: “I actually feel betrayed.”

Camera icon Jonathan Wilson / For the Inquirer
Celestine Shorts’ brother, Christopher Johnson, was fatally shot in a bar in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

Allison Borgatti, the assistant district attorney assigned to the case, said she privately told Voci she disagreed with his preferred strategy but would follow his instructions because he was her supervisor.

After that discussion, but before the trial began, Borgatti said, she was told she was being transferred for 30 days to a lower-profile unit that handles charging decisions, an assignment that would have required her to work the night shift. She also was still expected to handle the Morgan trial.

Borgatti — a prosecutor for six years who recently secured the conviction of a man who shot a city cop in the name of ISIS — resigned instead, saying she and several colleagues viewed the reassignment as retribution for speaking up.

“The decision to leave the office was incredibly difficult to make, both personally and professionally,” Borgatti said. “It’s the only job I ever wanted.”

Krasner said her reassignment was considered temporary and was not intended as punishment. The charging unit simply needed an experienced prosecutor, he said.

Voci added that Borgatti’s trial calendar was relatively open for the next several months; Borgatti said she had three jury trials scheduled in March and April, including a retrial expected to last about two weeks.

Krasner said Borgatti was not reassigned “because she spoke up. She was sent there because we needed coverage and we had to pick somebody.”

Still, Krasner added that “there is no organization that values people who don’t do what they’re asked to do, or [who] undermine positions taken by their superiors. … I am not speaking of [Borgatti] specifically. But to the extent that happens, those people are not doing their job and they should turn in their paycheck.”

Borgatti said she would “miss the responsibility of being an assistant district attorney forever.”

Morgan’s trial was handled by another prosecutor who had only a week to prepare, and the office ultimately did not seek to convict him of third-degree-murder. A jury acquitted him of both remaining counts.

Emergency meeting

The relatives of Ryan Kelly, a Port Richmond man killed in 2015, said prosecutors told them as recently as February that it was highly unlikely that his accused killer would be acquitted at trial, which had been scheduled for later this month.

Several eyewitnesses had identified David Ramos as the gunman in the street robbery of Kelly, a 21-year-old shot dead while walking from a Wawa back to his family’s home on Thanksgiving. Kelly’s mother was on the phone with him when she heard the shooting and ran out to see him on the pavement as Ramos got into a stolen car and fled.

Family members said they were shocked to receive a call in March from Cydney Pope, the assistant district attorney handling the case, asking for an “emergency meeting.”

Camera icon Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer
Amy Campbell, the older sister of Ryan Kelly, who was shot dead in a street robbery on Thanksgiving 2015, is shown on March 27, 2018.

According to Amy Campbell, Kelly’s sister, Pope said the office had decided to offer Ramos a deal: avert a trial by pleading guilty and receive prison sentence of 22½ to 44½ years — just two years longer than that of the getaway driver who had pledged to testify against him.

And, Campbell said, Pope told them the offer had already been presented in court — without their knowledge. Judge Steven R. Geroff rejected it. Campbell said Pope told them he viewed it as too lenient.

“They promised they’d tell us before anything happened,” Cathy Kelly, Ryan’s mother, said of the District Attorney’s Office.

Her husband, Bill, finished the thought: “And they didn’t.”

Voci acknowledged that “the offer process could’ve been handled better by our office.” He said it was rushed because of time constraints related to Pope’s caseload and Ramos’ approaching trial date.

Last week, the office again extended Ramos an offer — this time for 30 to 60 years in prison in return for guilty pleas to third-degree murder, robbery and other counts. He accepted it, and the Kelly family did, too. They said Voci explained the new offer to them before it was made and apologized for how the end of the case had been handled.

Campbell, speaking after that latest plea offer was accepted, said she still would have preferred that Ramos face a jury and the possibility of life behind bars, but was glad to at least be involved in the resolution of the case.

“I just think that families should have a lot more say in these situations,” she said.

Krasner said his office values the perspectives of victims’ families and would continue to do so as his change-driven agenda moves forward.

“These are normal growing pains,” Krasner said. “Change is never easy … and in these first 100 days we’re very optimistic about the future.”