Larry Krasner looks over a ton of file boxes from way back, in Philly D.A.

Before Krasner: The Wild and Wooly Saga of Philadelphia District Attorneys

April 20, 2021 by Independent Lens in Behind the Films

By Sharon Pruitt-Young

It was a world-changing moment for the city of Philadelphia: Larry Krasner, a former criminal defense attorney and a highly polarizing figure in local politics, was elected as the city’s 26th district attorney in November 2017, defeating Republican candidate and former assistant D.A. Beth Grossman for the victory. As seen in Philly D.A., it was the final and most important win for Krasner, who’d already beat out six other Democratic candidates in the primary election months earlier.

Depending on where you stood, Krasner’s win was either going to be the first step toward implementing monumental change, or it was the biggest mistake in the city’s history. During his more than three decades of experience in the courtroom, Krasner had earned a name for himself as an ardent progressive. He also had a fairly hostile relationship with the city’s police. While historically, district attorney offices and police departments work on the same “team,” Krasner has sued the police no less than 75 times —  a fact which, no doubt, substantially complicates that relationship. But as wild as Krasner’s circumstances may seem, his still unfinished story pales in comparison to what came before it. 

Krasner was preceded in office by Rufus Seth Williams, whose nearly 10-year tenure ended in a flurry of controversy—and criminal charges. After serving two terms, Williams quickly pulled the plug on his re-election bid in 2017 amid considerable scandal.

Williams, a member of the Democratic Party, was the first black D.A. in both the city and state’s history and many predicted that he was headed for even greater things. Unfortunately for his supporters, he’d been harboring his fair share of secrets while in office, which led to a shocking arrest in 2017.

Federal officials claimed that Williams had been giving out political favors to local businessmen over a five-year span and in exchange accepted gifts that included pricey, custom furniture, thousands of dollars in personal checks, and luxurious vacations. Local outlet The Philly Inquirer estimated that the full cash value of the bribes Williams accepted to be $160,500.

In perhaps an even more shocking turn, Williams was also accused of accepting money from his loved ones for his elderly mother’s care and using the funds to contribute to his lavish lifestyle—one where $200 cheese plates weren’t uncommon—instead of paying the nursing home. Finally, he kept all of his misconduct under wraps by fudging his financial records, prosecutors claimed.

Williams was hit with a five-year prison sentence in the fall of 2017. The unexpected end of Williams’ career was astonishing for many—including Williams’ predecessor Lynne Abraham, who said after his arrest that she’d considered Williams, whom she’d worked with for a decade, to be someone who “could have been the mayor, maybe even the governor.”

“Who knows where his future could have led him?” she told CBS Philly.

But where his future ultimately led him was a prison cell for three years (he was released early for good behavior). Today, he’s a free man again and works with local non-profits, but does not practice law.

As headline-making as Williams’ tenure was, his reign was from the only source of controversy in the Philadelphia D.A.’s history. Preceding Williams was Abraham, a Democrat who had the distinct privilege of being the first woman to hold the title. Still, what was in that sense viewed as progress was complicated by what many considered to be Abraham’s hardline pro-death penalty stance. 

Elected to the position four times, Abraham was the D.A. for nearly 20 years and oversaw more than 100 death sentences during that time, leading a 2016 study by Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project to deem her one of the top five “deadliest” prosecutors in the country. Twenty years before that, The New York Times dubbed her the “Deadliest D.A..” She came under fire then for describing an execution as a “nonevent” for her, even remarking, “I don’t feel anything.”

The Harvard study shed light on a troubling culture in the D.A.’s office while Abraham was in power, one where prosecutors took great pride in dealing out death. One assistant D.A, Roger King, had more than 20 death sentences on his record and kept a gallery of photos on his office showing all of the people he’d had put to death; their pictures were marked and the word “death” was written on each one.

Abraham’s dedication to pursuing death sentences, and her unwillingness to overturn them, came under fire numerous times during her career, making her a contentious figure in the city. But she stood by her decisions as recently as 2015, although she did, in that same interview, state that she would be “fine” with the death penalty being abolished. 

Lynne Abraham at a press conference, from archival news report, seen in Philly D.A.
Lynne Abraham

Before Abraham, the office of the Philadelphia District Attorney was led by Republican Ronald D. Castille, a Vietnam War veteran who lost his leg due to injuries sustained in the heat of battle. Following his time as a D.A., he, like many others, set his sights on the mayorship but lost the nomination in 1991 to another Republican. His defeat didn’t hold him back for long; he was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1993, and he went on to become the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania in 2008.

Prior to Castille was a familiar name to many a political pundit: Ed Rendell, a Democrat who later became mayor and then governor of Pennsylvania, and who was involved in his own share of controversy during his time as D.A. Under then-mayor Wilson Goode, Philadelphia Police in 1985 bombed the residential headquarters of a radical Black separatist group, killing 11 people, some of whom were children. Rendell, as the city’s D.A., prosecuted numerous members of the MOVE group, giving some of them sentences that he later admitted were “far too much,” according to the Associated Press. And despite Goode and Rendell’s apologies, the tragedy of that day remains a dark moment in the city’s history.

Catherine Baker Knoll , Dan Frankel, Tom Murphy (mayor), and Ed Rendell during the 2006 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election.
Ed Rendell (at right) during the 2006 Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, with Catherine Baker Knoll, Dan Frankel, Tom Murphy (mayor). [Credit: Kyle Cassidy, Creative Commons]
Rendell became D.A. in 1978 after winning against F. Emmett Fitzpatrick, who was accused of ethics violations and corruption (just as Williams was, decades later) that same year. Before becoming D.A., Fitzpatrick, like Krasner, was a criminal defense attorney, and some of his clients were known for their connections to organized crime—like Frank Sheeran, whose life inspired the Martin Scorcese film The Irishman (and Fitzpatrick appears in the film briefly as a character).

Following Fitzpatrick’s death in 2004, his son told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Fitzpatrick had actually defended numerous non-famous (not just infamous) people during his time in private practice, and that he would have loved to die in the courtroom defending a “downtrodden client.” And as for the ethical misconduct claims? “All politics,” he said.

The 1970s also saw Arlen Specter hold office for two terms, the culmination of his own strange story: he was initially a Democrat but switched to the Republican party after his own party wouldn’t support his run. It was not a popular decision; his former boss, whom he later ran against and defeated, called him “Benedict Arlen” for his betrayal, but any controversy his unorthodox move may have caused didn’t hinder his political career in the long run. He went on to serve as a senator for the state of Pennsylvania for five terms over three decades. (And, fun fact, he again switched parties and returned to his Democratic roots in 2009.) 

Republicans had run the D.A.’s office since its inception more than 100 years ago. That didn’t change until 1951, with the election of Richardson Dilworth, who won the position after failing to be elected mayor and governor in previous years. In one interview, Dilworth referred to his victory as a contributing factor towards “ousting the entrenched Republican machine here in the city.” 

Dilworth had been a practicing lawyer since 1927 and had had experience serving as the city’s treasurer. He spent one term in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office before successfully running for mayor in 1955. But as storied as his career was (he also served in the Marines during World War 2!), his personal life proved to be just as colorful; in 1956, just months into his first term, Dilworth was a passenger aboard the famed SS Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that famously sank after colliding with another boat. 46 people lost their lives and more than one thousand had to be rescued. Dilworth, who was on the boat with his wife, was on the last lifeboat to be recovered, according to The New York Times.

Since Dilworth’s election, 9 out of 11 Philadelphia D.A.s have been Democrats, including Kelly B. Hodge, the interim D.A. who served for six months before Krasner and who was the first black woman to do so. Of these 11, their political leanings have all run the gamut. If Abraham, the former “Deadliest D.A.,” represents one end of the spectrum, on the other end is Krasner, whose policies are unapologetically progressive. He ran on a platform of bringing about change, in many ways, the polar opposite of those who came before him. Whether that will continue to be the case only time will tell, but history has already shown that the D.A.’s office is no stranger to shaking things up.

Sharon Pruitt-Young is a writer, editor, and unrepentant nerd based in Maryland. She has written for Oxygen Network, MSN, Lifewire, Very Real, NBC Universal, and more.

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