My first assignment as an intern at the District Attorney’s Office was to attend a Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearing at City Hall. District Attorney Larry Krasner filed a "King’s Bench" petition seeking to have the death penalty ruled unconstitutional in Pennsylvania. That day, as I made my way down the humid hallways of the centuries-old courthouse, the idea of capital punishment becoming abolished became a real possibility to me.
As I listened to the arguments both for and against the death penalty, I mostly thought about the statistics that were being presented: more than 80% of incarcerated people on death row in Philadelphia are Black men, and more than 90% are non-white. My father, a Black man from the Jim Crow South, never went to prison, but he did flee the small town where he grew up to avoid being placed on the chain gang. Ultimately, he experienced the threat of the most horrifying commonality amongst Black men in the US: mass incarceration. Krasner’s argument at the hearing was simple: the death penalty disproportionately affects poor Black and brown people; it needs to end. No one disagreed about the statistics. Instead, the conversation mainly concentrated on Larry’s usage of the King’s petition, which required “immediate public importance,” to be deemed necessary. Being there that day reminded me of two things. First, there is no way to get around the cruel systemic and structural functionalities of our criminal justice system that streamline poor Black and brown men to death row and expand mass incarceration without the challenge of formality. Second, Krasner’s longshot attempt illuminated what he truly cares about: justice.
A few months into my internship in the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the DAO, I met Terrance Lewis, a West Philadelphia native and founder of the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation. After being incarcerated for more than 21 years for a murder he did not commit, he was exonerated by a judge in the CIU in 2019. Within a year of being exonerated, Lewis directed his passion towards founding and building the Liberation Foundation, and I recently spoke with him about Krasner’s influence.
“[Larry] has helped me realize the importance of dedicating the rest of my life to helping people [who] have been served injustice, by lending assistance and righting wrongs,” Lewis said. His authenticity is inspiring, and he is correct to highlight Krasner’s dedication for righting wrongs. To date, Krasner's CIU has exonerated 20 innocent people.
After passing her at a Rittenhouse Starbucks, I would have never deemed Lynne Abraham to be a person worthy of the title “deadliest DA.” However, that is one of the titles she was given during her tenure as Philadelphia’s DA from 1991 to 2010. Roger King, a lead Assistant District Attorney in Ms. Abraham’s office, infamously pursued the death penalty in many of the homicide cases he prosecuted. One of those cases was against Chester Hollman for the murder of a Penn student in 1991. Twenty-five years after being wrongfully convicted, he was released from prison in 2019. During the hearing that solidified his freedom, Common Pleas Court Judge Gwendolyn N. Bright insightfully criticized Lynne Abraham’s office and Roger King’s work, saying the prosecution’s behavior had been a “disservice to Hollman and to the criminal justice system, which must rely on the integrity and forthrightness of all the parties.”
Chester Hollman recently spoke with me about the importance of re-electing Larry Krasner, sharing, “Larry Krasner is the first DA in the city’s history to bring forth the true integrity of what the office is supposed to represent. He has saved our rightful right to freedom.”
For decades, this city inequitably punished its citizens under the disguise of white identity politics, but Larry Krasner has brought change to Philadelphia. Like Chester says, we must learn from the corruption of the past and continue to embrace and uphold elected officials who embody integrity and seek justice.
Carlos Vega, Krasner’s opponent in the Democratic primary, is a reflection of Philadelphia’s treacherous past. Larry Krasner fired him in 2018. Two years prior to being fired, Mr. Vega was one of the prosecutors working on the egregious retrial of Anthony Wright, an innocent man who was exonerated through DNA evidence after serving 25 years in prison. Mr. Vega has been endorsed by the FOP, the labor union for police officers and sheriffs in Philadelphia. The FOP’s leader, John McNesby, is known for his displays of racism and his desire to get rid of Larry Krasner. Larry Krasner has accused his opponent of being beholden to the FOP and their motives. The FOP has donated significantly to the Vega campaign, and they have led an initiative asking registered Republicans to switch their registration to the Democratic Party in an attempt to sway the upcoming primary election. They hosted and drank beer with the Proud Boys at an after-party when former Vice President Mike Pence visited Philadelphia last summer ahead of the 2020 Presidential election.
It is clear that Carlos Vega is not a candidate who will work towards dismantling the systemic and structural racism that runs rampant in Philadelphia. His decision to get cozy with the FOP illuminates his law and order mentality. From problematic White House visits to complaining about Larry Krasner to ignorantly and disgracefully labeling civilian killings that occur during mental health emergencies as police officers just “doing their job,” Vega’s FOP endorsement is troubling. Their presence in this city is repulsive, and their culture is reminiscent of old and broken policies — the kinds that unjustly punish Black, brown, and poor people.
We must keep the door of injustice closed. Larry Krasner has reduced the city’s prison population and taken on mass incarceration. He targets what matters. He has freed twenty innocent people. He recognizes that mass incarceration is systemically discriminatory and merciless. He acknowledges the political battles he faces in Philadelphia, but he meets them head on and does not give up the fight. After witnessing his dedication, much of which has been met by pushback, I genuinely look forward to what he will accomplish in his next term. He has brightened what justice means in our city. There’s no going back: Philadelphia needs Larry Krasner.
JESSICA GOODING is a graduating College senior studying history and English from Philadelphia. She has been an opinion columnist since 2019.
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