On District Attorney Larry Krasner’s fourth day in office, he fired 31 prosecutors in what the media characterized as one of the most “shocking and drastic shakeups that anyone could recall.” “The purge was on full display,” said Dann Cuellar of Action News, while long-time assistant DA’s left the office with boxes in hand. Vernon Odom declared that Krasner had fired “hundreds of years of prosecutorial experience.” The Inquirer quoted unnamed sources who attributed the firings to vendettas or “run-ins with Krasner’s one-time peers in the defense bar” or his wife, Common Pleas Judge Lisa Rau. Even the venerable Jim Gardner joined the fray, noting that Krasner has a problem with mass incarceration but apparently no problem with “mass firings.”

Over the past ten months or so Richard Sax, a now retired long-time prosecutor (who the ACCR staff knows personally), has made himself the leader of the Krasner resistance. Sax claimed that the firings were “personal and vindictive,” and would cause lasting damage to the office. He described the dismissed assistant district attorneys this way: “They won their cases. They prevailed. They achieved justice for their victims. That’s what they did, they did their job.”

Sax’s cataloguing of his former associates’ qualities is both shocking and revealing: in his view, a prosecutor’s duty (his job!) is to win cases, to do justice not for the community, but for the victim. Fortunately the law says otherwise, as best articulated in the United States Supreme Court case Berger v. United States 82 years ago. “The [prosecutor] is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” It is likely that Sax read Berger in law school, but apparently the lesson didn’t sink in: a prosecutor’s job is not to win, nor is it to represent the victim; rather, her job is the hardest one there is. To do justice.

Given the reaction of the media and select former prosecutors, a stranger might think that Philadelphia has just lived through a golden age of criminal justice, and that losing 10% of the staff (former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell fired 25% of his staff when he became DA) is the legal equivalent of decimating the 1927 New York Yankees. Such is not the case, of course. The last DA is now in prison, the one before him a national embarrassment for her overly aggressive prosecution style that now seems utterly anachronistic. Almost 100 death sentences have been reversed, many for prosecutorial misconduct.

The implication of the media overreaction is that Krasner is intentionally weakening his office, as if he were pro-crime and pro-criminal. This is a canard spread by the very people responsible for overcrowding our prisons, excessively seeking the death penalty, and winning cases at any cost. The fairer conclusion is that Krasner has not only read Berger v. United States, but has understood it as well. Once again, allegations of a falling sky are unfounded.



Based on recent media coverage, and a shocking endorsement of Beth Grossman by the Philadelphia Inquirer, we can safely assume that many Philadelphians left their homes this morning looking up at the clouds in fear. Surely the sky was falling after Larry Krasner’s decisive win in the race for District Attorney of Philadelphia. After all, hadn’t things been going swimmingly all these years? Why in the world would we want to upset the apple cart by electing a bomb-throwing radical like Krasner, when there was a perfectly good candidate like Beth Grossman to vote for?

So let’s take these issues one at a time. It helps to remember that Chicken Little believed disaster to be imminent because an acorn fell on his head; those in a panic over this election are suffering from a similar hysteria. Krasner’s positions – ending the death penalty, working to eliminate cash bail, opposing mass incarceration through fair rather than maximum sentences – are hardly sky-falling. Death sentences are at an all-time low, cash bail has been shown to unnecessarily incarcerate the indigent at taxpayer expense, and even conservatives are now re-examining the criminal justice policies that have led to mass incarceration. In short, Krasner’s election isn’t even a falling acorn.

Have things been going so well in the Philadelphia justice system that we should have wished to keep the status quo? Hardly. Philadelphia has seen videotapes of leading prosecutors teaching young assistants how to keep poor blacks off juries, dozens of convictions reversed based on prosecutorial misconduct of all stripes, and its most recent District Attorney sent to prison. Indeed, Philadelphia stood out like a sore thumb in the Northeast, which had almost entirely rejected the death penalty and began instituting real justice reforms years before Krasner even decided to run. Keeping the status quo would have been the equivalent of selecting a district attorney by standing still while everyone else took a step backwards. We are better than that, and Krasner is a giant stride forward from the career prosecutors who have occupied that office in the past.

Finally, was Beth Grossman the better choice, as the Fraternal Order of Police advocated? Certainly she had years of experience, having worked under the regressive Lynne Abraham and the convicted Seth Williams. She ran the civil forfeiture unit, a controversial wing of the office that was routinely accused of seizing assets from people who were not complicit in any way with crimes.

The main complaint leveled against Larry Krasner, a Stanford law graduate with years of experience fighting police abuse and other civil rights violations, is that he has no experience being a prosecutor. Given the history of Philadelphia’s justice system, some fresh eyes seem very welcome right now.


Yesterday, in what can only be described as a sea change election, Lawrence Krasner won the Democratic primary for the next district attorney in Philadelphia. While his victory in November is far from assured, he will surely be the favorite, and with continued vigilance should take over as the top law enforcement official in the city in January.

No doubt there will be a tendency to view this election as a fluke, an off-year, low turnout (but not that low!) affair fueled by the outrages of Trump and company. And indeed it is reasonable to think that the stars aligned on May 16th. But you would be wrong to see Krasner’s emergence as some lucky confluence of factors beyond his control. This result was a long time coming.

The Inquirer quoted Krasner in post-election jubilation joking that his position on capital punishment had been described as “political suicide.” While some might have felt this way, such thinking is the equivalent of Trump’s claim that coal will once again emerge as our leading source of energy. Forgive the mashing of two great song lyrics into one sentence, but the times they are a changing, and we won’t get fooled again.

Krasner’s victory is no more anachronistic than Governor Wolf’s death penalty moratorium. Both flowed naturally from the knowledge – long hidden, then long denied – that our justice system was not working properly. Krasner properly noted four important facts: Philadelphia leads the country in death penalty reversals, resulting in terrible unfairness to victim and inmate families alike; the entirety of the northeastern part of the United States has abandoned capital punishment (New Hampshire, the last outlier, has a single person on its death row); Pennsylvania has not executed anyone against his will since 1962; and, finally, all of these capital prosecutions and reversals cost the taxpayers an incredible amount of money. In short, it would have been political suicide to continue supporting this error-plagued and wasteful system.

As the late great Justice Brennan cogently pointed out in dissent when the majority brushed aside profound evidence of racism, we have a fear of “too much justice.” If we acknowledge race discrimination permeates capital cases, then how do we deny that it permeates all criminal cases? If we concede that indigent defense is badly underfunded, how do we find the money that a fair justice system needs? If we recognize that our detectives are coercing confessions that may prove false and identifications that might be erroneous, how do we have confidence in our results?

There are no easy solutions to these problems, but the first step, like any intervention, is understanding that these are problems. This is what happened yesterday, and Krasner was the emissary. His message is everyone’s message: We’re not going to keep pouring money down the bottomless black hole of capital punishment. We’re not going to continue the absurdly high incarceration rate of communities of color. We’re not going to seek the highest charge and maximum sentence simply because we can. We’re not going to waste huge amounts of money so that self-aggrandizing politicians can promote themselves to higher office. In short, we’re not going to be fooled again.



When the indictment of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams came, it was worse than most of us expected. Sure, there were $200 ties, $500 meals, lots of free flights and cash, and even a pre-owned 1997 Jaguar convertible. There was some seriously bad behavior as well, such as his stealing money from his own mother in a nursing home and then spending it all on himself. But from the previous news reports, the stakes seemed petty – family vacations and roof repairs and sporting club dues. And the crime itself, if it even was a crime, appeared to involve the friendship of sycophantic businessmen and restauranteurs who wanted nothing more than to be close to the rising political superstar. This was naïve in the extreme.

Instead, the indictment is nothing more, or less, than an old-fashioned case fixing scandal, eliciting predictable condemnation from the Mayor of Philadelphia and the Chancellor of the city’s Bar Association. “I’m merely a thankful beggar,” Williams said of himself; but the indictment shows that he’s not afraid to express his gratitude in a profoundly and brazenly illegal way.

Political scandals are nothing new to Philadelphia, of course; this space tends not to cover them, even when judges go to prison or police are captured acting improperly on videotape. And this scandal, about restaurants in California and vacations to Punta Cana, appears to have nothing to do with capital punishment. But the FBI agent announcing the charges against Williams put his finger on the relevance of this particular outrage: “The immense authority vested to law enforcement has to be kept in check, and that requires decision makers and leaders with a steady ethical compass.”

In every way, the death penalty is about decisions. The most obvious is the choice jurors make between life and death, a decision documented in books and films and songs. For those of us who work in the field, though, the more important decision is the one made by the district attorney to seek the ultimate punishment in the first place. It is this choice that starts what Justice Blackmun famously called “the machinery of death,” and a prosecutor without a steady ethical compass should be the last one to make such a choice. It is almost too obvious to point out, but a district attorney who owes favors to the powerful and cuts deals with his cronies will have to balance the books somewhere else, and that somewhere else will always be on the backs of the poor and the powerless.

This is not to castigate Seth Williams. He will suffer enough ignominy to pay the price for his misdeeds, and no one reading this blog would trade places with him. In addition, we are defenders, and defenders don’t gloat about indictments. Our point is a different one. The death penalty is a human endeavor, and human beings come in all shapes and sizes. Seth Williams is not the first prosecutor to sell an elected office for financial gain, nor will he be the last to brag about how tough he is on criminals while being one himself. As long as the machinery of death is run by innately frail human beings, it will yield an end product that must eventually bring shame to us all.

Wake Up Call

At 6:19 a.m. Saturday morning ACCR staff got the call: 38 years, 3 months and 4 days after the 14-year-old Ricky Olds went to prison for buying a bag of potato chips with the wrong crowd, he was going home a free man. rickyfree If you don’t believe the part about the potato chips, read VICE: The 14-Year-Old Who Grew Up In Prison. It is reasonable to wonder how this could have happened, but honestly it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. Just a lot more of it.

It’s always difficult to know where to start a story of unimaginable injustice. Maybe, in this case, racism. How else do you explain charging Ricky Olds – a skinny little black kid who bought a bag of chips in a Pittsburgh quickie mart and ran away when he saw a gun – with murder? Was it because his older friend killed a white man? Or because his lawyer, all of the prosecutors, and the judge were white? Was it because his jury was all white? Was it because it never occurred to any of them that a 14-year-old black kid might not have done anything wrong? It’s impossible to go back in time, and even if we could we wouldn’t get an honest answer. We can see through a little window, however. The judge didn’t want to give Ricky a life sentence, but he couldn’t persuade the prosecutor to be reasonable. The prosecutor thought it was all just a lot of whining: “He’ll be out in 17 years, maybe less,” Robert Colville said. Wrong and wrong.

But that was ancient history, and we like to think that we’re far more fair and just in 2017 than we were in 1979 (though why we would like to think this after November 8th is a mystery). If only it were true. In 2016 the prosecutor insisted on a 20 year to life sentence for Ricky, which was ridiculous given Ricky’s outstanding prison adjustment and his ludicrously minimal involvement in the crime – under what plausible theory did a guy like him require supervision by the Commonwealth for the rest of his life? But he had already served 37 years by then, so at least he would be getting out of prison. Well, not so fast. The prosecutor was only asking for 20 years, but they were insisting that the parole board release him – so they objected to the judge’s granting of bail. By doing so, the DA’s office made a man who never should have gone to prison for a minute serve an extra three months at State Correctional Institute at Somerset. The Commonwealth’s objection to bail for Ricky Olds infuriated us at ACCR, and we were very outspoken about the knee-jerk objections by the prosecution. But the Pittsburgh newspapers used its discretion to keep the specific prosecutors out of the public’s eye. We have no reason to do the same.

Assistant District Attorney Ron Wabby, just minutes before filing an appeal to keep Olds in prison and only minutes after conceding that Olds surely would be paroled when the parole board got around to it, explained to ACCR staff that he was just “following orders from the top man.” The top man? Stephen Zappala, the DA in Pittsburgh who recently lost the race for attorney general of Pennsylvania, is the son of a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. Wabby and Zappala should be ashamed of themselves, but again, the Pittsburgh newspapers have condemned their decisions but not by name.

Ricky Olds is out of prison, and we should all be glad about that. And we are. But you’ll forgive us for not celebrating. His case, from beginning to end, has been an insult to justice. It would be one thing if we could look back and say “how could they,” and believe with some confidence that we are happy we’ve moved on from 1979. But Zappala and Wabby made two very concrete decisions at the end of 2016 – that the “rules” require an innocent kid ricky-olds-at-14-jpg to spend the rest of his life on state parole, and that his continued incarceration after 37 years was necessary to uphold the “proper use of bail.” In other words, their cowardly fear of using the discretion the electorate gave them is no different from the behavior of their counterparts all those years earlier.

We have not come far at all. When someone steps forward and says that we made a mistake all those years ago, that will be grounds for celebration. If we survive the shock, that is.


When my father used to see egregiously unqualified or morally disqualified candidates running for office, he liked to say that he wouldn’t vote for that person for dogcatcher. Nowadays, though, taking care of abandoned animals has far more cachet than in my father’s time, so I’m going to disagree with him – I would in fact vote for Jeff Sessions for dogcatcher. Anything to keep him from being the Attorney General of the United States.

Sessions came to national attention more than a year ago when he was the first, and practically only, senator to jump on the Trump bandwagon; now he is one of the three recently announced Trump nominees who appeal to the Make Believe Right.[1] His background is well documented, and begins in the office he may now run – he was an assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama beginning in 1975, and was appointed by Reagan as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in 1981. In the mid-80’s he prosecuted three African Americans for voter fraud, a decision that prompted cries of selective prosecution. They were quickly acquitted, but even years later Sessions continues to stand by his decision to prosecute. In other words, he was far ahead of his peers in creating the illusion of voter fraud to suppress minority voting. The acquittal did not hinder Sessions’ political ascendance, however; shortly thereafter, Reagan nominated him to be a federal judge.

His nomination hearing proved illuminating. A lawyer from the Department of Justice testified that he claimed the ACLU and NAACP were “communist-inspired” and “un-American,” and “forced civil rights down the throats of people;” a black assistant U.S. Attorney claimed that Sessions referred to him as “boy,” and told him to “be careful what you say to white folks.” His attempt to become a federal judge was voted down in committee. Rejected for his racist views, Sessions turned to a community he knew wouldn’t mind – the state of Alabama. In 1994 he was elected Attorney General of the state, and in 1996 became their junior senator. As a fellow senator, he is virtually assured enough votes in that chamber to be confirmed as Attorney General.

The consequences of this nomination are great, particularly for those most likely to be reading this blog. We must anticipate a further attempt to limit voting rights, now without a watchdog Department of Justice to crack down on obvious violations. Undocumented immigrants, a particular scapegoat for the President-elect, will be treated harshly by his nominee, who was quoted saying that building a wall between us and Mexico was “biblical.” (In this regard, he is correct – such ideas have failed since Biblical times). And Sessions, one of nine senators to oppose the ban on torture in 2005, is likely to be a regressive force in almost all criminal justice issues, very much including the death penalty. Elections do in fact matter.

Would Sessions make a good dogcatcher? Maybe not. But wouldn’t it be great to give him a nice long chance to succeed at it?


[1] ACCR will never refer to these folks as representative of the “alt-right,” an absurd media concoction suggesting that their way of thinking is simply another alternative for us to consider, rather than the feverish, hate-inspired, imaginary nonsense that it actually is.


There’s no way to sugarcoat what happened yesterday, and we won’t try. Indeed, in our capital punishment world the news was even worse than might appear already obvious – the attempt to repeal the death penalty failed in California, and the plan to speed it up passed; the attempt to reinstate it passed in Nebraska; and in Oklahoma a ballot initiative passed insuring that the state can carry out an execution some other way if it can’t find the drugs necessary to do it by poisoning. (But note that the news wasn’t entirely awful. Pro-moratorium Governors in civilized Oregon and Washington won.)

ACCR staff was working at a polling place all day. Many conversations were had, some of them predictably depressing. In one it was pointed out that Trump’s claim about skyrocketing crime rates was factually wrong, that according to the FBI and the DOJ violent crime rates were near all-time lows. “Those are your facts, not mine,” the Trump supporter responded. This conversation is particularly consistent with the recent Trump claim that the Central Park Five were guilty, irrespective of their exonerations through DNA. The appointment of Rudy Giuliani to a position at the head of the Department of Justice makes the thought of justice seem distant.

A post-factual and post-scientific world is not an easy place for a rational person to live in. But as John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” Facts will prevail – we have had fewer death sentences and executions than at any time in recent memory, and no baseball hats with stupid slogans will change that fact. A friend of ACCR just texted that “we have bottomed out.” But if you’ve read your college share of Sartre, Camus, and Beckett, you’ll know that this is good news – we now have only one direction to go.

And speaking of Samuel Beckett, you might even recall the last lines of The Unnamable: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”