Two brothers accused of fatally shooting a city police officer during a 2015 robbery in a North Philadelphia video game store pleaded guilty Monday morning, drawing life sentences and avoiding the possibility of facing the death penalty if convicted at trial.
But almost as soon as the proceedings began, they offered a stage for police officers, former prosecutors, and relatives of the slain Sgt. Robert Wilson III to criticize District Attorney Larry Krasner, and for Krasner to accuse the police union of harassing and intimidating other relatives of Wilson's who he said agreed with his handling of the prosecution.
The case has been closely followed since Wilson encountered Carlton Hipps and Ramone Williams inside the GameStop as he was buying a video game for his son. The brothers shot him several times — including after he had fallen to the ground, according to testimony Monday.
The courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center was packed with supporters in T-shirts bearing Wilson's name, and former Mayor Michael Nutter and Police Commissioner Richard Ross were among the past and present officials in the gallery as Hipps, 32, and Williams, 28, were remanded to prison for life.
Still, the theatrics inside and outside the courtroom overshadowed the plea agreement, and suggested that this saga may not be over.
Krasner said at an afternoon news conference that his office was "gathering information" about what he described as ongoing harassment of two women with whom Wilson had children, and that the situation was "bad enough I may have to take legal action." He declined to offer specifics, but had said in court earlier that some of the actions related to phone calls or text messages to the women from unspecified members of the police union.
In an interview, John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, called that allegation "absurd." Asked about the possibility of Krasner's investigating the union's actions in the case, McNesby said: "Do it. I hope he does come and do something," calling the possibility "hilarious."
The hearing Monday — held in a larger courtroom to accommodate the number of spectators — began with Krasner addressing Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O'Keefe about his decision to allow Hipps and Williams to plead guilty and receive a life sentence, sparing them the potential of death row.
Krasner, who as a candidate said he would never seek capital punishment, said the decision would let Wilson's family avoid "retraumatization" from future trials and appeals, and would prevent Wilson's two sons from having to attend hearings while growing up or to see surveillance video of the attack.
Krasner also noted that it has been nearly two decades since anyone in Pennsylvania has been executed, and said that life in prison without the possibility of parole is not an unusual sentence for people convicted of killing police officers in Pennsylvania. The death penalty, he said, is a more expensive, time-consuming, and ineffective outcome that ends with defendants dying behind bars — which Hipps and Williams are now assured to do anyway.
"It is, in fact, the same result," Krasner said.
After his remarks, he left the courtroom as his chief of homicide, Anthony Voci, recited the facts of the case.
That departure did not sit well with relatives and friends of Wilson. One member of the audience audibly called Krasner an expletive when the district attorney told the judge he needed to step out.
Several Wilson supporters addressed O'Keefe before the brothers were officially sentenced. All who testified described feeling isolated, angry, and even abandoned by Krasner and his office.
"Why is this being allowed?" asked Wilson's sister, Shaki'ra Wilson-Burroughs.
Troy Burroughs, Wilson's brother-in-law, called Krasner's office a "joke." The manner in which the plea was handled, he said, "is like a punch in the face."
Wilson-Burroughs said her family had minimal contact with Krasner's office since he was sworn in in January. She was notified of the plea agreement by telephone around 4 p.m. Friday by Voci, with whom she had not previously spoken. And she said Krasner did not greet her or her relatives in the courtroom Monday.
"We're not given respect," Wilson-Burroughs said.
Wilson's partner, Officer Damien Stevenson — who was outside the store when Wilson was killed — began his testimony by telling Voci: "I don't know you. We've never met. And that's a problem." Of Krasner, Stevenson said: "He hasn't called me. He doesn't know my voice, because he left" the courtroom.
Wilson's grandmother Constance Wilson said to Hipps and Williams: "They should've put the jail on top of you. Both of you."
Sgt. Marcus O'Shaughnessy said Krasner "lied and insulted this family."
"The District Attorney's Office has not lived up to [its] mandate," he said.
Earlier during the hearing, Thomas Malone, a former city prosecutor who said he represents Wilson-Burroughs and Stevenson, attempted to deliver a motion to O'Keefe seeking to delay the proceeding. O'Keefe, however, said Malone could not submit paperwork because he was not part of the case, and the judge ordered him to "sit or be removed."
Before he was sent to prison, Williams apologized to Wilson's family, saying, "I'm truly sorry," and that his actions were wrong. Hipps' attorney, Trevan Borum, called the crime "horrific" and said the sentence of his client was just.
O'Keefe, meanwhile, praised Wilson as a hero, and called Williams and Hipps "despicable" and "contemptible thugs."
Krasner, for his part, said at his news conference that he respected the viewpoints of Wilson's sister and grandmother and the fact that they disagreed with his decision, but that he was satisfied with the way his office handled the case.
"There is not a better way to handle it when we have given them more attention than any other group of victims who have come into this office," he said.
Krasner also said several times that the women with whom Wilson had children — whom he did not identify — were too intimidated to visit the courtroom Monday, but that they agreed with his decision to forgo capital punishment, and that their viewpoints mattered as well.
And despite the outcry from some family members, police officers, and police union officials, Krasner said, he felt the decision would not harm his relationship with police in the city — and that he already had spoken with some members of law enforcement who expressed support for his approach.
"I don't accept for one minute that the rank-and-file police officer is opposed to a careful consideration that ultimately is consistent with what the mothers of the children of Sgt. Wilson wanted," Krasner said. "I think we have a ton of support within the rank and file."