A federal judge on Monday excoriated the conduct of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his office, going so far as to levy sanctions against Krasner personally and his assistant district attorneys, saying the “egregious” and “exceptional” conduct warranted the unusual step.
In his 28-page memorandum opinion, U.S. District Judge Mitchell S. Goldberg stopped short of imposing financial penalties, saying those penalties would only be borne by the city’s taxpayers.
Judge Goldberg did, however, demand that Krasner personally author and deliver a written apology to four surviving victims of Robert Wharton’s murders of Ferne and Bradley Hart in the East Mount Airy section of the city. Wharton was convicted of strangling Bradley, drowning Ferne in a bathtub, and leaving the couple’s 7-month-old daughter, Lisa Hart, to die in her crib on a freezing January morning in 1984.
Krasner’s apologies will also have to be filed in the federal court case, thereby making them a matter of public record.
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Wharton was convicted of those crimes and sentenced to death. Years later, however, Wharton asserted that his death penalty conviction should be overturned because his attorneys provided ineffective counsel during the sentencing phase.
Krasner’s team took up Wharton’s cause, and sought to have the death sentence vacated, and the case has wound through many iterations in both state and federal courts in recent years.
In Goldberg’s Monday opinion, he asserted that the DAO was supposed to supply the court with a balanced view of the facts — evidence that supported Wharton’s claim of ineffectiveness (known as mitigating evidence), but also proof that did not aid Wharton (known as inculpatory evidence).
In particular, the judge dressed down the DAO and the attorneys who worked on the case for failing to tell the court that Wharton had once briefly escaped custody, only to be shot and apprehended in a City Hall stairway by a sheriff.
“The Law Division Supervisor and Assistant Supervisor, both experienced attorneys, testified that they recommended conceding Wharton’s habeas petition without knowing or attempting to know that Wharton had escaped from a City Hall courtroom.”
Goldberg then went on to say that when he pressed one of the attorneys from the DAO on how the office could submit a petition affirming it had “performed a ‘careful and independent review’ while not knowing of Wharton’s escape, [the attorney] responded that she could not ‘answer that question for the Court.’”
Although the evidence issues clearly infuriated Goldberg, his opinion showed that he was even more incensed that the DAO’s office was not truthful when telling the judge that its willingness to concede the death penalty “was made ‘following…communication with the victims’ family[.]’”
“[T]his statement gave the impression that the Office had conferred with the family before making the decision to concede and that the family either agreed with the decision or did not object to it. In fact, the only communication was to inform a single family member that the Office was considering conceding,” Goldberg wrote.
“None of the family members,” inclunding Hart, the only surviving victim, “supported the Office’s decision to concede, and several expressed shock and indignation that the District Attorney’s Office had suggested otherwise. While the Court declines to sanction the signing attorney, no similar justifications excuse the District Attorney’s Office as a whole for so carelessly invoking its communications with the victims’ family as support for its concession while, at the same time, making only a cursory effort to contact them and no effort to consider their views,” Goldberg continued.
“The Law Division Supervisor could give no justification for why communication with the surviving victim and her family was handled in this manner other than to say that victim communication was not her responsibility and the Office made a ‘mistake.’”
[T]his statement gave the impression that the Office had conferred with the family before making the decision to concede… In fact, the only communication was to inform a single family member that the Office was considering conceding.
In deciding on a sanction, Goldberg said he was guided by federal crime victims’ rights legislation.
Goldberg said because Krasner “approved and implemented internal procedures that created the need for this sanction, and that the District Attorney had the sole, ultimate authority to direct that the misleading Notice of Concession be filed, the apologies shall come from the District Attorney, Lawrence Krasner, personally.”
Request for comment to Krasner’s office was not immediately returned.
Goldberg’s denouncement of Krasner’s office comes just two months after a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice took the unusual step of filing a special concurring opinion — the sole purpose of which was to find fault with Krasner and his assistants in the DAO’s prosecution of a police officer.
In that instance, Justice Kevin M. Dougherty alleged that Krasner and his office had possibly abused the grand jury process when it “[failed] to provide the investigating grand jury with all relevant legal definitions[.]” Justice Dougherty also alleged that the DAO had tried — successfully — to deny a preliminary hearing to the officer who was the defendant in the case.
Both remonstrations are sure to catch the eye of Harrisburg Republicans, who took the first steps of impeaching Krasner — sometimes lauded as the most progressive district attorney in the country — in June.
Just last week Krasner said he would not comply with any of the procedural steps in the impeachment process, which is only in the inquiry phase at the moment, saying he will not comply with a subpoena issued by the committee in the House of Representatives.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports