Krasner Announces Big Shakeup in Homicide Unit of DA’s Office

The move by the DA, who has been knocked by political opponents for lacking administrative experience, represents real revolution — and maybe some risk.

krasner homicide reorganization

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner released two memos to his staff on Tuesday afternoon detailing a number of significant policy changes that are sure to generate applause from some quarters and pushback from others.

Krasner’s marquee change is enlarging the scope of the office’s Homicide Unit to incorporate nonfatal shootings. He also announced the combination of several units, including the insurance and government fraud groups, into an office to prosecute economic crimes.

While the new memos are perhaps not so immediately attention-grabbing as the one he released shortly after taking office, which drastically curtailed prostitution and marijuana prosecutions — “Do not charge possession of marijuana regardless of weight,” the memo read — they do present Krasner, who has been knocked by political opponents for lacking administrative experience, as interested in doing significant bureaucratic business, and represent real revolution — and maybe some risk.

Traditionally, working homicide cases has been “the show” for police and assistant DAs alike — the highest possible duty in a cop’s or trial prosecutor’s career. But Krasner, in a phone interview, suggests any culture disruption generated by the move should be outweighed by the benefits of the new arrangement.

For starters, in terms of the evidence involved, a nonfatal shooting and a homicide are much the same: The ability to ferret out or infer motive and present ballistics evidence is key in both kinds of case, for instance. Krasner says he prefers this organizational structure in terms of mentoring and investigations. “It’s a pretty great way to bring along trial attorneys,” he says. “This will present natural opportunities for mentorship and for less experienced attorneys, handling nonfatal shootings, to serve as second chair [co-counsel] assisting in homicides.”

Krasner also sees the new structure as an aid to preventing burnout. “Traditionally, if you are a homicide prosecutor, you are either prepping for or mounting a trial that involves looking at pictures that are frankly horrible, of murdered people, and I do believe it takes a toll,” he says. “There will be some opportunity this way for homicide prosecutors to recharge their batteries a little bit in cases that don’t involve deaths.”

Attorney Jonathan Mandel, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor in Los Angeles, says he loves the idea. There are often too many chiefs, he says, in a DA’s office. “You’re talking about taking the most violent crimes and putting them in one unit and prioritizing them,” Mandel says, “and that makes sense to me administratively and as a statement about priorities.”

This new approach is something one of Philadelphia’s most experienced homicide prosecutors rejects, however. “As serious as a shooting is,” says Carlos Vega, who spent more than 30 years prosecuting homicides, “the level of preparation and stress is totally different.”

Vega was one of the 31 staffers Krasner dismissed shortly after taking office, and he says he “feels bad for the victims” after this move. “There aren’t many experienced prosecutors left in that unit, so this will be the blind leading the blind,” Vega says.

Krasner’s spokesman, Ben Waxman, denies this, saying the experience level in the homicide department is “better” than that, though he could not immediately produce numbers. Waxman noted that the unit’s conviction rate hasn’t suffered since Krasner took office, providing a report the office generated showing a conviction rate around 90 percent — in keeping with the success rates of previous administrations.

Krasner also cites the new unit as a potential boon to investigations, noting that the city experiences a lot of retaliatory shootings, cases in which an attempted murder or an aggravated assault leads to someone else being shot or killed. The new department will be better able to coordinate the office’s response, says Krasner, in connected cases. And as for the any culture shock that might be involved — climbing up the rungs to the Homicide Unit has been regarded as the office’s highest aspiration — Krasner offers some pushback. As with so much of what he’s done since taking office, joining these departments reflects a philosophy.

“It’s true that the skills of prosecutors in the homicide department are very high,” he says. “But I would argue against the notion that the most important thing law enforcement can do is show up after blood is on the ground and find the participants, rather than what a skillful juvenile prosecutor can do, which is to prevent these homicides from ever happening.”

The other big news in the memos is the new Economic Crimes Unit. Krasner had vowed on the campaign trail to prosecute white collar crimes more aggressively, and the new unit is a step toward that goal.