With Larry Krasner Facing Re-Election Tomorrow, Don't Fall For Bad Faith Attacks on Reform Prosecutors

A critical response to Ralph Cipriano's critique of Philadelphia's progressive district attorney, published on Sunday in Glenn Greenwald's Outside Voices.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - (L) Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner at a press conference announcing Danielle Outlaw as the city’s first black female police commissioner. December 30, 2019. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Editor’s note from Glenn Greenwald:

The article we published yesterday in this space by veteran reporter Ralph Cipriano, which harshly critiqued the job performance of Philadelphia's progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner, created substantial discussion and debate — as we intended given what an important topic this nationwide prosecutorial reform movement has become (the original subscriber-only version we published is here; with Krasner facing re-election tomorrow, we have also now published a freely available version). As we announced when we launched our Outside Voices freelance series several weeks ago, part of what we want to do with it is air dissent and debate between reporters and writers. In that spirit, what follows is a response to Cipriano's article by Ben Spielberg, followed by a short reply to this article from Cipriano.

By Ben Spielberg

On Tuesday, May 18, Philadelphia voters will choose between reelecting Larry Krasner as their District Attorney or replacing Krasner with Carlos Vega, a career “tough-on-crime” prosecutor who Krasner fired when Krasner first took office back in 2018. This election has national as well as local implications given that Krasner, a lifelong defense attorney, is probably the highest-profile and arguably the boldest of the progressive District Attorneys elected around the country in recent years. Krasner’s record includes declining to prosecute people for marijuana possession, removing the death penalty from consideration, sharply scaling back the use of cash bail, limiting the length of prison, parole, and probation sentences prosecutors seek, and exonerating people who previous prosecutors had wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

That’s why it was so disappointing to read a dishonest attack on Krasner in the Outside Voices section of Glenn Greenwald’s Substack two days before the election. Greenwald called this hit job, written by Ralph Cipriano, “an important piece of journalism that will enable readers to form their own views in a more informed and less propagandized manner.” In reality, Cipriano’s piece is standard-issue tough-on-crime propaganda that will leave readers severely misinformed.

Some of what Cipriano writes is just plain false. He contends, for example, that Krasner has “uniformly applied [bail and sentencing] policies across the board to all crimes and to all accused criminals,” but Krasner has actually drawn criticism from social justice advocates – myself included – for failing to remove cash bail for all crimes. Cipriano’s claim about sentencing is similarly false. In fact, the section of an early Krasner policy memo that discusses sentencing literally begins by enumerating a list of crimes to which the policy Cipriano is complaining about does not apply: “Homicides, Violent Crimes, Sexual Assault Crimes, Felon in Possession of a Weapon (6105), and Economic Crimes with a loss of $50,000 dollars or more or cases involving attacks on the integrity of the judicial process.” The memo also makes clear that individual prosecutors can seek longer sentences than generally recommended if they believe the specific circumstances of a case warrant it – they just need “supervisory approval,” which may need to come from Krasner himself when a particularly harsh sentence is on the table. The reason for this policy, as Krasner explains, is that prosecutors often overcharge defendants in order to enhance their negotiating position in a potential plea deal. Krasner would prefer not to “coerce defendants” and to instead “proceed with charges that are supported by the facts of the case, period.”

Cipriano’s lack of interest in the facts of the case, on the other hand, is apparent in his description of what he calls “the most notorious murder case of [Krasner’s] reign, the 2018 murder of Sean Schellenger.” Here’s Cipriano’s description of the case:

“The 37-year-old real estate developer was stabbed to death near Rittenhouse Square, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Police arrested Michael White, a 20-year-old Uber Eats driver who, in a crime recorded on a cell phone video, plunged a black, foot-long serrated knife with a seven-inch blade into the back of the unarmed Schellenger. The victim bled out in minutes while White fled on foot.”

Cipriano then asserts that the jury finding “White not guilty of voluntary manslaughter” was due to Krasner inexplicably “dropping a third-degree murder charge against White” and then “collaborat[ing] with White and his lawyers to help [White] beat the rap.” 

What actually happened, though, is that Krasner’s office downgraded the charges against White as they learned more about the case. White was in the middle of making a delivery when he encountered an argument between Schellenger and another driver. White intervened and says he told Schellenger “there’s really no reason to act like a tough guy” because Schellenger “looked like he was intent on hurting someone.” White says Schellenger then approached White with balled fists, “gritting his teeth and [saying] he was going to beat the Black off [me],” at which point White pulled out a knife (which he carried for protection) to try to scare Schellenger away. Eyewitnesses confirm that Schellenger, a former football player who was far bigger than White and was drunk (his autopsy showed a blood-alcohol level of .199 in addition to cocaine in his system), charged at White and then lifted him into the air, at which point White stuck his knife in Schellenger’s back. White did flee the scene and ditch the knife but then turned himself in less than a day later and helped police recover the weapon.

Cipriano’s failures to mention both Schellenger’s attack and the fact that White turned himself in are glaring omissions of facts that obviously speak to White’s intent. Cipriano also omits that White had no violent priors, whereas Schellenger had previously been arrested on separate occasions for resisting arrest, battery, and disorderly conduct. That information is clearly relevant if you’re trying to understand why Krasner’s office would have determined that a voluntary manslaughter charge was more appropriate than a murder charge in this case. As Krasner has explained, “I saw video footage of the confrontation between White and Schellenger over 20 times…Although the clip was silent, a great deal of White’s account when we questioned him corroborated what he described that night as an act of self-defense. My office eventually charged him with manslaughter because we felt that White’s actions were those of imperfect self-defense, based on his use of the knife and other factors.” Krasner’s office also charged White with tampering with evidence for initially discarding the knife along with his bloodied shirt and backpack; the jury found White guilty of that charge and White was eventually sentenced to two years of probation.

The reason Cipriano relies on a combination of outright falsehoods, wildly distorted storytelling, and a handful of scary-sounding anecdotes (in one of which he criticizes Krasner for a bail reduction that Krasner’s office actually argued against) is that the truth doesn’t support his thesis. He presents no actual evidence tying the gun violence spike in Philadelphia since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to Krasner’s policies because there isn’t any. Cipriano also bizarrely implies that stimulus checks going to people who deal drugs is the only COVID-19-related reason for the nationwide increase in gun violence between 2019 and 2021, dismissing the much more obvious explanation that, as summarized by Everytown Gun Safety, “the pandemic aggravated the very factors driving city gun violence, [which include] generations of systemic racial discrimination and inequities in health care, housing, education, and other factors.”

Researchers have extensively studied whether harsh punishments reduce crime and have concluded that they do not. Neither does bail. And contrary to Cipriano’s assertion that Krasner’s policies have showcased “an institutional blindness toward victims” of crime, most people who have been harmed by a crime prefer Krasner’s approach to Cipriano’s. A solid majority want “shorter prison sentences” and greater investments “in prevention and rehabilitation programs” in addition to “the medical, economic, and emotional support that most victims never receive.”

Greenwald writes, in his introduction to Cipriano’s piece, that many have come to believe that the benefits of [Krasner’s] criminal justice ‘reform’ approach are becoming outweighed by its mounting costs.” Yet Cipriano has been writing anti-Krasner diatribes since Krasner took office, confirming that Cipriano hasn’t “come to believe” anything new – he’s just recycling the dehumanizing language and fallacious arguments that have been common in pro-carceral advocacy for decades.

Greenwald's readers and Philadelphia voters absolutely do deserve the opportunity “to form their own views in a more informed and less propagandized manner.” That’s precisely why they should reject Cipriano’s writing in favor of more honest sources.

Ben Spielberg co-founded and blogs at 34justice.com. He formerly worked in policy research, writing, and advocacy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and has been published by The Washington Post and The New York Times, among other outlets.

Response from Ralph Cipriano:

Mr. Spielberg claims that Krasner's office downgraded the charges against Michael White in the Rittenhouse Square stabbing case as "they learned more about the case." The truth is from start to finish, D.A. Krasner single-handedly overrode the objections of every prosecutor that I know of who was involved in this case to twice downgrade the charges against White. The original ADA who handled the case charged it as first-degree murder. After Krasner screamed at him, he overrode the ADA, downgrading the charge to third-degree murder. That ADA subsequently resigned. When Krasner made the decision on the first day of jury selection to drop the third-degree murder charge, so that the biggest charge White was facing was voluntary manslaughter, which is harder to prove, both prosecutors in the case told the victim's mother that they had vociferously opposed that decision, but lost.

Contrary to Mr. Spielberg's claim that I relied on a "handful of scary-sounding anecdotes," for the past couple of years I have written three dozen such stories about the horrors done by people Krasner keeps letting out of jail. Of course Mr. Spielberg doesn't quibble with any of the facts of those "scary-sounding" anecdotes, because he can't. Hacking a 70-year-old man's body up into pieces, or say, brutally beating a six-year-old to death are indeed pretty scary-sounding crimes. I have plenty more such stories that I have told on my blog. Such as Byseem Smith, the 19-year-old who was charged in 10 felony cases for offenses that included shooting a man in the groin, shooting a woman in the stomach, and committing aggravated assault on a couple of cops. Or Adriano Coriano, who, while Krasner's charging unit sat on an arrest warrant for six days for violating a protection order by stalking, harassing and assaulting his ex-wife, Gladys, shot her to death. Or the two-time convicted killer caught with drugs and a gun that Krasner let out of jail because of a $25 traffic ticket, a killer the feds had to rearrest for violating his parole. Or the career burglar that Krasner dropped 27 cases against, and a total of 184 charges. These stories go on and on, and the suffering of the victims, Mr. Spielberg, can't be minimized. 

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