Civil rights attorney Larry Krasner handily won the Democratic primary in the district attorney’s race Tuesday, running on a platform of bringing sweeping change to the office, and that has made some current assistant district attorneys very concerned, according to former prosecutors and defense attorneys with knowledge of the office.
Krasner won the Democratic primary with 38 percent of the vote, winning nearly twice as many votes as the second-place candidate, Joe Khan, who ended up with 20 percent.
Krasner’s campaign focused on his progressive agenda of criminal justice reform, including overhauling the city’s cash bail system, seeking lower sentencing schemes and never seeking the death penalty during his tenure. Krasner also roundly criticized the current culture of the office, often stressing its need to change.
According to several sources who spoke with The Legal, those words and the campaign’s platform have left many in the office anxious about Krasner’s likely transition. He still has to defeat Republican nominee Beth Grossman in November to become district attorney-elect, but the Democrats start with a massive voter-registration advantage in the city, and the GOP has not secured the DA’s Office since 1989.
“The perception I have is that it’s going to be a rough and severe and serious transition,” criminal appeals attorney Todd Michael Mosser, who spent more than 11 years working in the office, said. “That’s what I hear. Maybe that’s wrong. Maybe he’s got a different perspective and people are freaking out for no reason, but that’s what I hear.”
Several attorneys offered similar sentiments that many in the office are concerned, both for the jobs and for potentially working for a district attorney who does not share their philosophies regarding law enforcement.
According to several attorneys, the group that is worried about potentially being fired during the transition are primarily the group of attorneys who have been in the office for decades and have positions higher up in the office. However, given the difficulties in making the drastic transition from working in a public office to working in the private sector, few attorneys said that a mass exodus is likely.
“You always hear rumbling that people are going to leave, or are going to protest. The bottom line is nobody’s going to leave,” criminal defense attorney Charles Peruto said. “It would be foolish to not at least give the guy a chance. He’s really trying to reform a culture that really did get out of hand.”
Attorneys have previously reported to The Legal that morale in the District Attorney’s Office has sunk as the legal woes of District Attorney Seth Williams have continued to mount over the past few months.
According to A.J. Thomson, a former prosecutor in the office who was fired in connection with its handling of a police officer who admitted to lying under oath, Krasner’s win might sink morale further.
“Essentially, somebody on the other team usurped the office,” Thomson said.
But Thomson agreed with others that much of the anxiety over Krasner is overblown. He agreed also that the DA’s Office may benefit from some of Krasner’s promised reforms.
Although some sources said the fear partly stems from the broad rhetoric regarding changing the office, while offering few details about what that means for the rank-and-file assistant district attorneys, Krasner’s campaign has not been without its words of encouragement for those in the office.
During his acceptance speech Tuesday night, Krasner said that many ADAs could have taken higher paying jobs, but decided to become prosecutors because “you wanted justice.”
“You know what I want? I want what you want. I want justice,” Krasner said to the group of cheering supporters. “I look forward to building up this District Attorney’s Office together.”
At a press conference Wednesday, Krasner reiterated that he hopes to work with members of the office, and, in his first 100 days, he plans to focus on recruiting top talent from across the country.
“There’s no way for the office to be any better than the people who compose it,” he said.
In response to a request about whether changing the culture also means extensively cleaning house at the office, a spokesman for Krasner said in an emailed statement, “Absolutely not.”
“Frankly, there has been a level of speculation and rumor about this topic that is not helpful at this point. Larry is close to many current and former ADAs,” spokesman Ben Waxman said. “He knows that there are many, many good people in that office. Larry is looking forward to working with both rookie and veteran prosecutors. They have a level of expertise that he will need to implement the many policy changes that were the cornerstone of his campaign.”
Defense attorney Ronald L. Greenblatt of Greenblatt, Pierce, Funt & Flores, who said he is a Krasner supporter but has not been involved in the campaign, agreed that many in the DA’s Office are afraid of having Krasner take over the office.
However, he said any fears regarding a difference in criminal justice philosophy is unfounded, and he expects the reforms a Krasner administration may bring will increase many of the efficiencies in the office. Specifically, Greenblatt said he expects prosecutors will have more discretion to focus on violent and economic crime. He said he also expects the decision to not pursue the death penalty will also increase efficiencies.
“Just from a logistical standpoint, I think that really heats up a lot of the advocacy that’s so hardcore between the DA’s and the defense bar,” Greenblatt said. “Not having that will just be a sea change in a very positive direction.”
One significant factor is that Krasner still has a lot of work ahead of him before November, attorneys agree. Some court watchers said they think Krasner’s unconventional rhetoric may spark a stiff challenge from Grossman, who has positioned herself as a more traditional candidate and points to lengthy prosecutorial experience. She served 21 years as an ADA before leaving to become chief of staff in the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections.
Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott attorney Kevin Harden Jr., the president of the Philadelphia Barristers Association, said both candidates will have to work hard in the lead-up to the November election.
“Grossman needs to develop the level of trust that Krasner seems to have with the larger community,” Harden said. Krasner’s “focus should be on developing relationships with law enforcement, including the DA’s Office, and the police department. … Both of them have work to do.”
A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment for the story.