All eight candidates in the race for Philadelphia District Attorney squared off at an April 17 forum moderated by attorney Tom Kline, which is slated to air on Pennsylvania Cable Network at 7:30 pm on April 20.
Citing a deep engagement with matters of criminal law and criminal justice by faculty and students, Dean Daniel Filler said the law school is the ideal venue for such an event. And against the backdrop of current District Attorney Seth Williams’ indictment on bribery and corruption charges, Kline noted the city’s need for a DA with the highest ethical standards.
The seven Democrats and one Republican agreed on the need for reform, outlining different visions for change.
Retired Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni was asked by Kline how her decades of experience on the bench and as a defense attorney prepared her to be the top prosecutor. Deni said that despite her lack of experience in the DA’s Office, she would bring “a new culture,” hiring interpreters to aid prosecutors and sending preliminary hearings back to police districts to use officers’ time more efficiently.
Joe Khan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and assistant district attorney, pledged to beef up efforts to combat human trafficking and sexual assault cases, noting that the DA’s Office had slashed the number of attorneys handling such cases.
“A budget is a moral document,” Khan said, contending that the DA’s Office has “gone in pursuit of easy wins” and needs to eliminate the cash bail system that allows defendants with means to “buy themselves out of jail” and leaves no such recourse for those without resources.
Former Assistant District Attorney Beth Grossman, who spent eight years working on the Public Nuisance Task Force, commended Kline for his own pursuit of human traffickers through the lawsuit he filed in March against a hotel where teens have been forced into prostitution. The lone GOP candidate in the race, Grossman said she would focus on rooting out a “tsunami of corruption” that has resulted from Philadelphia’s single-party rule and led to the criminal conviction of judges as well as Williams’ indictment, for which he has pled not guilty.
Richard Negrin, a former deputy mayor, city managing director and assistant DA, was asked by Kline about the use of “stop-and-frisk” by police in Philadelphia. Negrin said that, as a prosecutor, he threw out cases where police had violated a suspect’s constitutional rights and that police cannot operate on the basis of a hunch but that reasonable suspicion as defined in Terry v. Ohio sets out a valuable standard. Negrin also said that police need to be evaluated more closely to determine if they are using good judgment.
Former First Deputy District Attorney Tariq El-Shabazz said that Terry v. Ohio “always sounds good,” but that the stop-and-frisk practice has been applied chiefly in poor neighborhoods.
“The policy has been applied systematically for a long time,” El-Shabazz said, adding that it should be abandoned entirely and that diversifying the police force and District Attorney’s Office would represent critical steps toward reform.
Criminal defense and civil rights attorney Larry Krasner also called for ending stop-and-frisk practices, noting that searches seldom turn up guns or contraband and are counter-productive.
“Young men are alienated. They don’t want to cooperate with police. It’s a nightmare for detectives and police,” said Krasner, who urged a wholesale redirection of resources away from prisons and into public schools and other programs that stop crime.
Michael Untermeyer, a former assistant DA and former senior deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania, criticized the use of civil forfeiture and said “bad convictions” have resulted. Untermeyer pledged to stop prosecuting drug users and focus instead on pursuing large narcotics organizations, big business and white collar criminals.
Former Assistant District Attorney Jack O’Neill, observing that he’s the only candidate who has prosecuted homicides, said he would push to expand diversionary programs that reduce jail populations, devote more resources to mental-health screenings and reinforce the Sexual Assault Unit.
Asked by Kline about his relative youth, the 35-year-old O’Neill noted that he is older than the late U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and former Gov. Ed Rendell were when they became district attorneys.