Pennsylvania House panel probing Philly DA finds 'dramatic' increase in unprosecuted gun cases

Latest hearing focused on murder victims and their families and how they've been impacted by DA Larry Krasner.

Updated: October 1, 2022 - 11:41pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

In prosecuting crime, Philadelphia has gone it alone, withdrawing from a statewide district attorney association as its results of gun-related crime pulls away from the rest of the commonwealth.

Such is the portrait painted by the second hearing of the House Select Committee investigating Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner on Friday.

While the committee’s Thursday hearing focused on murder victims and their families – and the pain they feel, as The Center Square previously reported – Friday’s hearing focused on district attorney relations in the state and how violations of the Uniform Firearms Act were prosecuted.

In 2018, Krasner withdrew the Philadelphia DAO from the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, arguing the group supported regressive policies and was “the voice of the past.” All other DAOs in the commonwealth remain a part of the PDAA, which provides trainings, legal updates, and other resources for prosecutors, noted attorneys association Executive Director Greg Rowe.

Rowe argued against the view of the organization as regressive.

“We would obviously disagree with that characterization,” Rowe said. “We do support laws that keep dangerous violent offenders off of our streets and incarcerated. At the same time, we support measures like the clean slate initiative that help clear individuals’ records and get jobs,” and to decriminalize the possession of fentanyl test strips.

Committee members emphasized the importance of the PDAA’s educational efforts as hands-on training to prepare young law graduates as assistant defense attorneys. Otherwise, mistakes would happen.

“It seems to me … if you fire dozens of seasoned ADAs and replace them with new folks, perhaps right out of law school, and then fail to provide them with the training that’s recognized as the gold standard across the entire commonwealth, you run the real risk of rookies making basic procedural errors,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove, the chairman of the committee.

While procedural errors weren’t specifically addressed, the committee heard a presentation about violations of the Uniform Firearms Act prosecution rates, which are gun-related.

Mark Bergstrom, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing, presented findings from a report evaluating VUFA prosecutions. While the report recommended further research, especially for more qualitative data, it did show differences between Philadelphia and the rest of the state.

Of VUFA cases that made it to trial, 83% returned a guilty verdict statewide, compared to 77% in Philadelphia. The percentage of guilty convictions has declined statewide from 2015-20; though Philadelphia has declined every year since 2015, other parts of the commonwealth have seen some progress until the pandemic hit and lowered numbers. Lawmakers noted that noelle pros cases, where the state decides not to pursue a case, have been increasing. While they increased from 7% to 12% statewide between 2015-20, they increased 7% to 21% in Philadelphia.

Lawrence called that increase “dramatic” and noted that Philadelphia was included in the state average, thus bringing the average closer to its statistics simply from the volume of cases in the county.

Lawrence also denounced pro-Krasner protests outside the committee hearing.

“Yesterday, while a mother was describing the pain of searing loss after the muder of her son ... supporters of the status quo were literally holding a circus outside this building, chanting and cheering with stilt walkers and people parading, dressed up like lions, elephants, zebras,” he said. “This committee will not be drawn into the gutter filled with circus animals when the matter at hand is of such importance.”

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