For decades, Larry Krasner’s position on seeking the death penalty has been defined by one word: “Never.”
As a candidate in last year’s Democratic primary for district attorney, the longtime civil rights lawyer averred that he was “the only candidate running … who explicitly pledges to never seek the death penalty.” His post-victory platform reasserted that “he will never pursue a death sentence in any case.” It was one of many unequivocal campaign promises that helped him clinch the primary and subsequent election.
But since taking office, Philly’s new DA has made more equivocal remarks on capital punishment that have worried — and angered — some of his staunchest supporters.
The initial remark came at a media briefing last week, where Krasner fielded questions about suddenly dismissing 31 attorneys and other staffers as well as a flurry of new hires and interim appointments.
When the conversation turned to policy, Krasner outlined the DAO’s homicide sentencing committee, an appointed board that recommends sentences in many homicide cases. While the final decision rests with the DA himself, Krasner noted that this committee’s yet-to-be-appointed members could push a death penalty recommendation in certain cases.
“You never want to say never, but their decisions and my decisions are going to be informed by the fact that the death penalty is never imposed in Pennsylvania,” he said, referring to Gov. Tom Wolf’s moratorium on state execution.
Some observers were startled by the shift in Krasner’s language. Others wanted more context.
Asked for clarification Wednesday, Krasner’s office issued a similarly tempered response.
“DA Larry Krasner has consistently stated that he personally opposes the death penalty,” DA spokesman Ben Waxman said in an email to Philly Weekly. “His statement about the committee’s procedures represents no change in his personal beliefs about the death penalty. Ultimately those beliefs will inform his exercise of discretion in accepting or rejecting the committee’s recommendation.”
Pressed over whether “never” still means “never” with regard to seeking capital punishment as DA, Krasner’s office declined further comment.
Several of Krasner’s staunchest supporters who were briefed on these comments expressed concern over what they perceived as his notably softened rhetoric.
Jondhi Harrell, founder of the Center for Returning Citizens and a member of the pro-Krasner Coalition for a Just DA, said he personally attended campaign events in which the longtime civil rights attorney spoke of nothing but “never.”
“Is DA Krasner the same person as Candidate Krasner, or will we begin to see a watering down, a dilution of the key components that caused community activists, returning citizens and a public hungry for social justice to overwhelmingly support his campaign?” Harrell queried in an email. “While staunch supporters wish to believe in the integrity of campaign promises, the reality comes with the day-to-day decisions of the office.”
Lorraine Haw, a member of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration, called it a “backtrack.” Haw’s brother was murdered in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania hasn’t executed an inmate since 1999, she is lobbying to have her brother’s killer removed from Death Row.
“He’s got to realize the same way we got him up there, we can bring him down,” Haw said of Krasner. “He can’t sit here and sell us dreams, because we can get dreams for free.”
Asa Khalif of Black Lives Matter in Pennsylvania, who campaigned heavily for Krasner, also took note of the shift in the DA’s tone.
“Every politician, including Larry Krasner — especially Larry Krasner — must and will be held accountable to the campaign promises they ran on, and we can accept nothing less,” Khalif said Wednesday.
After reviewing Krasner’s statements, the Coalition for a Just DA, which represents more than a dozen pro-Krasner groups, issued a statement calling on him “to take the death penalty completely off the table and issue clear policies that prohibit [the homicide sentencing committee] from making such recommendations.”
Despite concerns, supporters still have high hopes for how Krasner will adjust to the political pressures of the office. Many viewed his termination of long-tenured prosecutors and top unit brass as a campaign promise delivered. And in terms of carceral policy, Krasner has already helped negotiate parole for juvenile lifer Johnny Berry, who has spent the last 23 years behind bars, as the Inquirer first reported.
“I have to give Krasner credit,” said Berry, upon hearing the prosecutor’s offer for reduced sentence. “He held true to his promise. He definitely changed the culture of the office.”
But when it comes to the death penalty, outcry can strike prosecutors mightily from all sides.
Last year, a legal battle erupted in Florida between Republican Gov. Rick Scott and State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who had long refused to seek capital convictions — even when unanimously recommended by a panel of assistant prosecutors. The case eventually went to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled that Ayala had to at least consider the death penalty in certain cases. She has since taken on her first capital case.
Sources in the Philly DAO worry that a similar scenario could unfold should a Republican succeed in ousting Wolf, who is up for reelection this year.
State Sen. Scott Wagner, a populist Republican candidate from York County, has made pro-death penalty remarks on the campaign trail following the death sentence handed to Eric Frein, the Poconos man who shot and killed a State Police trooper last year. Under Wolf’s moratorium, the sentence remains purely symbolic. Wagner has vowed to immediately lift Wolf’s moratorium should he take the reins in Harrisburg.
However Krasner handles these unforeseeable pressures, his believers say they’ll be watching.
“On the day that the Krasner DA office pursues a death penalty case, that promise is dead,” Harrell said. “What other principles may fall by the wayside under the weight of political opposition and reality? It is up to those who fought and struggled to elect him to hold him accountable to the principles and promises we believed in.”