A Republican state lawmaker from Chester County began the first public hearing for a committee tasked with investigating crime in Philadelphia by reading a series of headlines.
Rep. John Lawrence, the committee’s chair, mentioned the highly-publicized ransacking of a Wawa on Roosevelt Boulevard and a shooting earlier this week outside Roxborough High School that left a student dead and four other teenagers injured.
“This is not normal. This is not okay,” he said. “In light of what is happening, it would be dereliction of duty if we did not take action.”
Lawrence, after the meeting, tried to convince reporters that Harrisburg’s probe in the city’s gun violence epidemic would be far-reaching – and is not just a thinly-veiled attempt to impeach District Attorney Larry Krasner.
“The continual focus on one individual, I think, is misplaced,” Lawrence said.
During the hearing, at the Navy Yard in South Philadelphia, legislators heard from family members of homicide victims and from a professor asked to look into Krasner’s handling of a murder case involving a former police officer.
There was a heavy security and police presence, and, in a park across the street, Krasner supporters rallied, some donning bright yellow “count every vote” hoodies.
Nakisha Billa, whose son, Domonic, was killed in a March 2021 shooting at Philadelphia Mills Mall, told lawmakers that she was hopeful when Krasner was elected because mass incarceration had negatively affected generations of Black and brown families.
But, under his watch, repeat offenders have not been adequately punished, she said.
“It has either been extreme jail time sentences for low-level offenses or like now, where slaps on the wrists are given for violent crimes,” Billa added.
She said no one reached out from the city or state to provide support after her son’s death. Billa called the DAO’s CARES Unit, a service for victims frequently touted at Krasner’s weekly press conferences, but said she found them no help.
Other family members testified through pre-taped video, with some describing a lack of communication with detectives and no arrests in the their loved one’s case.
Krasner, speaking at a news conference Wednesday about the Roxborough shooting, blamed Harrisburg for Philadelphia’s gun violence crisis for not allowing the city to enact its own gun control measures.
“What we have from this legislature, and I am speaking of one party, what we have from them is the talking points of the NRA, and kids getting shot outside of schools,” he said.
State Rep. Martina White, a Republican from Northeast Philadelphia who attended the hearing, said “when it comes to firearm crimes, we need to enforce the laws that are on the books already.” She said she wants to see Krasner removed from office.
Bruce Antkowiak, a legal expert and professor at St. Vincent College, was asked by the committee to review the case against Ryan Pownall, a former Philadelphia officer who faces murder charges for the 2017 on-duty killing of David Jones.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in July ruled against a motion in the case filed by Krasner’s office to have a portion of state law ruled unconstitutional. That regulation, known as Section 508, allows officers wide latitude to shoot fleeing suspects.
Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, in a concurring opinion, questioned whether prosecutors provided grand jury members with information about Section 508.
Antkowiak said he couldn’t make a definitive statement about the DAO’s conduct without reading grand jury transcripts.
The committee subpoenaed the DAO for those documents; however, Krasner said he is barred by law from sharing those notes, and he has a pending lawsuit against the committee over the subpoena.
In a statement following the hearing, Krasner said Antkowiak’s testimony validated the DAO’s handling of the Pownall case.
Antlowiak also told lawmakers that district attorneys in Pennsylvania have great discretion in deciding which cases to prosecute, and that there are few checks on DAs, aside from the voters.
A second hearing is scheduled for Friday morning at Penn State’s Navy Yard facility, with testimony expected from Greg Row, executive director of the state District Attorney’s Association, and Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.
Krasner has sparred with the committee about the location, timing and formatting of the hearings, and on Thursday he reiterated his desire to speak before legislators.
“If the time comes for the district attorney to appear before this committee, the committee will determine when that time and place is,” Lawrence told reporters.
The House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order was formed by resolution in June as part of an effort to advance Krasner’s impeachment.
Two Philadelphia Democrats – Amen Brown and Danilo Burgos – are on the committee, though Burgos did not attend Thursday’s hearing.
Earlier this month, after the DAO refused to provide documents related to the subpoena, the state House of Representatives voted to hold Krasner in contempt. The DAO has since provided requested information about prosecutorial policies.