Attorneys handling cases in the Criminal Justice Center on Monday faced some delays and confusion in the wake of the major shakeup initiated by new Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Although most defense attorneys said they expect things to run smoothly, many said the full impact of the changes remains to be seen.
Monday was the first business day after Krasner fired 31 employees, many of whom had been top brass in the office. As a result of the changes, attorneys reported Monday some delays and confusion when it came to who would be handling their cases.
No official list has been released to the public outlining exactly who has been fired, or what units have been impacted most, but, according to numerous sources, two areas were hit particularly hard by the firings. The first is the homicide unit, which, according to sources, has been reduced by nearly a third. Also, two of the three attorneys tasked with reviewing the sentences of juvenile lifers have been let go.
Some attorneys said Monday they were concerned that no definitive list has been released by the prosecutor’s office, saying they expected more transparency from Krasner, who was elected on a progressive platform. Others said they would like to know who will be filling the shoes of those who were dismissed Jan. 5.
An announcement is expected to be made soon regarding who Krasner will bring into the office. So far, Nancy Winkelman of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis has joined as the interim supervisor for the office’s law department, and Movita Johnson-Harrell has joined as the office’s interim supervisor of victim services. Johnson-Harrell had been a member of Krasner’s transition team.
While several attorneys were optimistic that Krasner’s transition will not cause any serious disruptions to the criminal justice system, at this point, many said they are left wondering whether the disruptions seen Monday will be a hiccup, or whether the changes could result in lasting problems.
On Monday, attorneys described the delays and confusion more as hiccups than signs of lasting problems.
According to court records and interviews, one trial was delayed as a result of the shake-up, and at least one other case was directly impacted Monday.
Ben Waxman, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said the office has been taking steps to minimize the disruptions.
“There’s always going to be some bumps in the road during a transition,” he said. “The district attorney has confidence in the ability of our employees to navigate those and deal with them appropriately.”
The trial that was delayed came in a case Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott was handling. That case, Commonwealth v. Murphy, was set to begin trial Monday with Andrew Notaristefano prosecuting the case for the District Attorney’s Office. Notaristefano, however, was one of the attorneys fired Jan. 5.
According to attorney George Yacoubian, who is representing defendant Ameer Murphy, the start of trial has been pushed back to April 2. Yacoubian noted that continuances typically push trials back one year, so the three-month delay, he said, should not be a significant burden as far as his client was concerned.
Yacoubian said he expected there would be delays in other cases as a result of the confusion Monday.
“Ameer was ready to go, I was ready to go today,” he said, adding that he expected McDermott would grant the continuance since he had also previously been granted a continuance in the case. “I suspect the judges will take this on a case-by-case basis.”
But, ultimately, Yacoubian said the issues appeared to be part of the normal transition process.
“I don’t anticipate it causing any long-term concerns,” Tacoubian said.
Attorney William Bowe of the Defenders Association also had a case in front of McDermott that was impacted by the personnel changes. That case was a juvenile resentencing case, which was being handled by Joseph Whitehead, who multiple sources agreed was fired Jan. 5.
Bowe said that, although there was some confusion about who may be handling the case going forward, the confusion Monday should not cause any delay.
“There’s no delay in the case as of yet,” he said. “I think it’s going to go smoothly.”