Why Didn’t Lynne Abraham Prosecute a Cop Who Shot a 20-Year-Old in the Back?

Today, she says she would have done things differently.

Lynne Abraham | Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Lynne Abraham | Photo by Jeff Fusco

Before Michael Brown and Eric Garner were household names, an off-duty police sergeant shot Lawrence Allen in the back in Philadelphia on Nov. 17, 2008.

Allen was paralyzed and, three months later, he died. He was 20 years old.

Lynne Abraham, the city’s district attorney at the time, decided not to press charges against Sgt. Chauncey Ellison, the cop who shot Allen, or his then-girlfriend, Officer Robin Fortune, who was involved in the melee.

Allen’s family was furious. “How could you say it’s not murder?” his father asked the Daily News in 2010. “My son suffered like a wounded animal until he died.”

Six-and-a-half years later, Abraham is running for mayor and police-involved killings are a source of major controversy throughout the nation. The U.S. Department of Justice just issued a critical report on police shootings in Philadelphia. And, most saliently, Ellison and Fortune were convicted of reckless endangerment when District Attorney Seth Williams reopened the case after succeeding Abraham.

If she could do it all over again, would Abraham still have chosen not to prosecute? And will that decision come back to haunt her in the mayor’s race?

First, some backstory: In 2008, according to newspaper reports, Allen was friends with a teenager who stole a pizza from Sgt. Ellison’s son. The police sergeant and Officer Fortune tracked the thief down to Allen’s block, where witnesses say Allen tried to diffuse the situation and even offered to pay for the pie.

What happened next is hotly disputed. Ellison says Allen pulled a gun on him, and Ellison then shot Allen in self defense. Some witnesses say Allen indeed appeared to draw a gun; others say he was unarmed.

After Williams brought the case back to life, a jury deadlocked on a charge of manslaughter against Ellison. But Common Pleas Judge Sandy L.V. Byrd sentenced both Ellison and Fortune to 11 1/2 to 23 months in prison for charges of reckless endangerment.

“This is not your typical ‘recklessly endangering another person’ case,” Byrd said at the time, “and it calls for a sentence above the guidelines.”

Which brings us back to Abraham.

As it turns out, she says she would handle the case differently today. She would charge Ellison and Fortune with reckless endangerment “given the circumstances that we know now, and the evidence that we have now about the temper of the community, if you will.”

However, Abraham says she remains confident in her decision to not charge the cops with manslaughter, partly because “Mr. Allen was armed,” and that escalated matters, she says.

“The evidence is clearly insufficient as a matter of law to sustain manslaughter charges, and that is evidenced by the fact that the jury was unable to reach a verdict on that issue,” says Abraham.

No gun was ever found near Allen’s body or in his house.

Abraham’s record as D.A. is inarguably one of her greatest strengths as a mayoral candidate. It has given her more name recognition than any of her opponents, as well as a base of supporters, including some African-Americans, who are deeply concerned with crime.

But her long record also leaves her vulnerable to attack. Will one of her contenders (or the super PACS backing them) highlight this case as an example of her being soft on crime by cops? Would that hurt her chances in the May 19th primary election? A poll commissioned by a pro-Jim Kenney group found that she has already fallen behind him and state Sen. Anthony Williams, though she started as the race’s frontrunner, according to her own internal polling.

Abraham, for her part, says that as district attorney, she recommended in 2009 that Ellison and Fortune be fired. They were terminated in 2010.

“I said to the police commissioner in a letter that Sgt. Ellison and Fortune were unfit to be police officers,” she says, “because of their utter lack of judgement.”

Abraham also says that she supports the recommendations made by the Department of Justice to address police shootings in Philadelphia, as well as those made by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“I’ve already come out embracing those two reports,” she says, adding that their suggested reforms are “the best way to address all of those issues.”