Choose the sword, Carlos Vega told the jury.
Fresh off securing convictions in a contentious 2016 triple-murder trial, Vega — a veteran Philadelphia homicide prosecutor — asked jurors to vote for the death penalty, telling the courtroom that Lady Justice “is blindfolded and holding the scales of justice.”
“But think about what’s in her other hand,” he said. “A sword. And that is a sword for the protection of the innocent and for the punishment of the guilty.”
Opposing Vega during that trial was Larry Krasner, a career defense attorney who earlier this month was sworn in as Philadelphia’s district attorney.
Upon assuming office, Krasner — who campaigned on a pledge of sweeping reforms — has wasted little time unsheathing his own metaphorical sword.
In barely 10 days on the job, he axed dozens of prosecutors, including Vega, and promoted or hired dozens more, including an 83-year-old former judge as first deputy and other well-regarded defense attorneys for his leadership team.
He also, more than once, signaled he would follow through on some of his bolder campaign pledges, such as not shying away from charging police officers who shoot suspects.
Krasner said the flurry of activity was part of a plan to reorganize the office to reflect his reform-minded vision — one that ditches the tough-on-crime tactics of the past for what he describes as a balanced sense of justice. The actions delighted his liberal supporters, enraged his critics, and delayed at least two trials — one of a man accused of vehicular homicide for allegedly killing a 3-year-old girl during a street race.
Krasner said he anticipated choppy waters at the beginning of his tenure, but believes such drastic changes were necessary to kick-start his efforts not just to revamp the office but the city’s criminal justice system.
“I think people who understand that there was a need for change recognize that we’re taking real steps,” he said last week, “even though they may be difficult, even though there may be imperfections at times.”
Stalled cases, stalled explanation
Krasner spoke just days after his first dramatic decision — forcing 31 employees to resign, including prosecutors who had been
scheduled to begin trials Monday.
One, Thomas Lipscomb, was handling the street-racing case. Another, Andrew Notaristefano, was set to prosecute a 2015 murder that had been awaiting a trial for nearly three years.
The judge in Notaristefano’s case, Barbara A. McDermott, was so incensed that prosecutors were again seeking to delay the trial she ordered Krasner’s office to explain why she should not force it to pay the $11,000 needed to cover the accused killer’s extended incarceration, his transportation to court Monday, and the cost of summoning jurors.
“This case,” McDermott said, “has been this court’s top priority.”
Krasner waited until Tuesday to publicly explain the firings, telling reporters those dismissed simply did not reflect the office’s new mission — and that as the coach, he gets to “pick the team.”
Krasner also did not deny what many lawyers and prosecutors privately had speculated since the purge — that his personal impressions played at least some role in deciding who would stay and who would go.
And during his news conference, he made remarks that raised eyebrows of some observers. In introducing his new interim homicide chief, for example, Krasner said: “He has always been after the truth. It would be good to have an office where our attorneys understand their obligation always to tell the truth, and always to be transparent and fair with victims and witnesses and defendants, in a way that hasn’t always been the case in this office.”
Krasner said that the remark was not referencing anyone specific, although he said he would not get into reasons for individual dismissals. He also insisted that the final list was based on more information than his own opinion — and that it was not, as cynics suspected, a personal “hit list.”
“In every single instance,” Krasner said, “we had multiple sources and multiple incidents coming from different sides: defense [attorneys] and prosecutors or the judiciary, plus my own experience.
Still, Benjamin Lerner, the city’s deputy managing director for criminal justice and a former Common Pleas Judge who oversaw homicide cases for more than a decade, said it was “outrageous” to suggest any of the ousted prosecutors — more than a half-dozen were believed to be from the homicide unit — were dishonest or not capable.
“The lawyers on that list,” Lerner said in an interview, “are some of the absolutely most competent and most honorable prosecutors who any district attorney’s office would be lucky to have.”
Jack McMahon, a longtime Philadelphia defense lawyer, said the new district attorney has every right to surround himself with people he trusts. McMahon was part of the defense team in the triple-murder case prosecuted by Vega, and he said that the trial was “very, very personally contentious,” and that “I know it had an effect on me, so I can only assume it had an effect on Larry.”
In McMahon’s view, if that case or any others informed Krasner’s view of whom to employ and whom to fire, that’s not only justified, it’s smart.
“That’s absolutely normal — it’s to be expected,” McMahon said. “And I think anybody put in that situation should do the exact same thing.”
A third member of the defense team in that case was Anthony Voci — whom Krasner introduced Tuesday as his new chief of homicide.
While a host of internal employees were bumped up to supervisory positions, Krasner’s leadership team was also largely rounded out by outsiders.
Carolyn Engel Temin, 83, who retired from the Common Pleas bench in 2012 when she hit mandatory retirement age, became his first deputy. She said her age was of “no consequence,” and Krasner said her experience would benefit the office.
Nancy Winkelman, in private practice, was appointed to lead the law division. And Arun Prabhakaran, formerly of the Urban Affairs Coalition, was named chief of staff — a position Krasner believes will help expand the office’s connections to the community.
Krasner rounded out the week by suggesting he would not shy away from other campaign stances. Speaking at the Free Library on Thursday, he questioned the lack of prosecutions against police officers who shoot and kill while on duty.
“This ain’t fair,” he said. “This is biased.”
McMahon noted that as Krasner gets his feet, it’s important he do so with his own version of the office — and his priorities — in place.
“Let him rise and fall with the people he wants,” McMahon said. “That’s just the way government works. The old goes out and new comes in.”