Every life lost to violence is tragic.
But the murder of 21-year-old Temple student Samuel Collington in November 2021 is one tragedy that has, for some reason, stood out in the minds of the public.
Perhaps it’s because Collington was on the cusp of adulthood. Perhaps it’s because his murder came in a clumsy carjacking a day after Thanksgiving, just blocks away from Temple’s relatively quiet college campus.
At the time, the Philadelphia media united in pressing District Attorney Larry Krasner on why the suspect, 17-year-old Latif Williams, was free despite a separate carjacking charge in July.
Because of the questions surrounding the case, Broad + Liberty requested court transcripts of Williams’ first carjacking case, reviewed other court documents, and spoke with other former law enforcement professionals to get a deeper view into how Williams was let free.
In our opinion, the documents show yet another example of the Krasner office’s habit of surrendering cases too early, too willingly, or losing through sheer ineptitude. While the case doesn’t necessarily represent the “typical” Philadelphia murder — Collington was a white college student, unlike little Harley Belance, for example — it is exemplary of the failures of the Krasner office to seek justice in our city.
When news of Williams’ previous charge broke, it was revealed that the case had been dropped by the DA. At the time, the DAs office released a statement that said, “a key witness for the Commonwealth did not appear in court, forcing our office to withdraw the case at that time.”
But the office was not forced to withdraw.
Most current or former prosecutors will tell you the district attorney’s office has three chances to make a case work in court before a judge will throw it out. Former line prosecutors and supervisors have no explanation for how an assistant DA does not ask the judge for a continuance for another chance to bring a gun point carjacker to justice.
On the very first preliminary hearing on Sept. 16, the assistant district attorney signaled that the office was not willing to go the distance.
“We’re not ready. If I’m not prepared to proceed at the next listing, I will withdraw the matter,” ADA Paul Goldman told the judge on Sept. 16. Goldman was not ready because the key witness was not in court.
On the second court date, Goldman threw in the towel.
“Your Honor, since the arrest in this matter it has been fairly clear to us that we would not have the cooperation or participation of the complainant.”
Goldman did not push for a third court date, and therefore no third attempt was made.
We understand that witnesses sometimes do not appear. But a closer look at a court document suggests that the witness in the case was extremely cooperative at least in the first week of the investigation.
The affidavit of probable cause shows that:
— On the day of the crime, the witness identified the two alleged suspects by name to police.
— Also on the day of the crime, the witness was transported from the Central Detective Division to 12th and Susquehanna, at which point he identified the alleged second offender.
— On Aug. 5, the witness provided an Instagram account to police, to aid them in their search of “Teef”…presumably Latif.
— On Aug 5, the witness identified Williams in either a photo lineup or physical lineup; the court document does not indicate which.
How did this witness go from fully cooperating to being unwilling to appear in court just five weeks later?
The simplest explanation would suggest witness intimidation. But as we know, Krasner has said his office has struggled to produce witnesses because of police tactics.
“This is part of what happens when you break the relationship between police and community by things like massive, illegal ‘stop and frisk.’ We have no witnesses,” he said in January.
Broad + Liberty asked Krasner’s office to list any of the many tools at the office’s disposal to help bring a witness into court that were deployed in this particular case. That request for comment was not returned.
The failure on the Collington case echoes the tragic murder of 11-year-old Harley Belance last year. In that case, the suspect had been arrested for an aggravated assault weeks earlier, but prosecutors also gave up after the second court date and didn’t push for a third listing.
Broad + Liberty asked Larry Krasner’s office to list any of the many tools at the office’s disposal to help bring a witness into court in this particular case. That request for comment was not returned.
“There’s no argument from the prosecutors; there’s no fight to keep the case alive,” said Guy D’Andrea, a former assistant district attorney about the Belance case. “There’s no recitation of why the victim’s not there, no ask to put the case on hold while the prosecutor is trying to reach out to the witness. And, so, it seemed like the prosecutor just rolled over and allowed this case to be thrown out.”
Office management and turnover are also likely culprits, but those are responsibilities that fall squarely on Krasner’s shoulders.
“Several young lawyers [in the district attorney’s office] said they felt ill-prepared for their jobs in high-profile units, and said the staffing issues have impacted case outcomes,” a December report from the Philadelphia Inquirer said. Nearly three-quarters of the 21,000 cases that resolved [in 2021] were either withdrawn by prosecutors or dismissed by judges, according to a website maintained by the DA’s Office — 73%, compared to 36% of cases resolved in 2017.
The assertion that the DA’s office was “forced” to withdraw in the first Williams carjacking is not only questionable, but it appears to be an excuse peddled by an inept office in the face of a promising life in Philadelphia being snuffed out. And the notion that the witness was unwilling to cooperate is only at best partially true — but the fact that the witness was clearly cooperative initially raises serious concerns either about witness intimidation or the overall competence of the district attorney’s office.
Krasner can continue to deflect behind weak excuses like blaming ‘stop and frisk’ policing, blaming Republicans in Harrisburg, or blaming his predecessors in the office — and we have little doubt that he will. But at some point, the deflections will fade away and a stark truth will remain: the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is failing victims of crime under his stewardship.
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