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Philadelphia’s 2 top prosecutors trade war of words

December 21, 2018
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FILE - In this Aug. 29, 2018, file photo, U.S. Attorney William McSwain is shown at a news conference in Philadelphia. McSwain and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Kraner, Philadelphia’s two top prosecutors are locked in a war of words that echo their polarized view on criminal justice issues.(David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The sharp ideological divide between Philadelphia’s two top prosecutors — reform-minded District Attorney Larry Krasner and U.S. Attorney William McSwain, a President Donald Trump appointee — has sparked a war of words as the city endures rising homicide rates, daily gun violence and an entrenched heroin problem.

McSwain this week questioned Krasner’s commitment to crime victims, saying he was “abdicating” his role by focusing on defendants. Krasner has taken heat from the city’s police union and several victims’ families for plea agreements they consider unduly lenient.

“He unfortunately seems wholly unconcerned about providing justice to victims. He seems preoccupied with advocating for defendants,” McSwain told The Philadelphia Inquirer this week. “I think the DA has more and more over the past year shown his true colors.”

Krasner, a longtime civil rights lawyer, snapped back Friday, suggesting McSwain was taking cheap shots at him and parroting the “shrill” style of the man who appointed him.

“I don’t think it’s constructive for him to throw rocks, but I’m also not going to be silent when he throws them,” Krasner told The Associated Press.

Nonetheless, he said, the dispute won’t keep the two offices from working together on joint investigations.

“It does not make sense to me that the U.S. attorney, when we are being entirely cooperative and collaborative, ... is engaging in this shrill reaction, except for the fact that this is a Trump appointee,” Krasner said.

McSwain, through a top aide, declined to comment for this story.

“I think it’s unseemly for one public official to criticize another,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat who served two terms as the city’s district attorney. “It’s going to obviously make it harder for them to work together, although I believe that if it’s important, they’ll put it aside.”

McSwain, a Harvard Law School graduate and former Marine sniper, took office in June. Two months later, he slammed Philadelphia for a “sanctuary city” policy that before Krasner’s time, led to the release from jail of a previously-deported immigrant from Honduras who went on to sexually assault a child.

More recently, he attacked Krasner over a plea deal that led to a 3-1/2- to 10-year sentence for a man who shot a shopkeeper with an AK-47 assault rifle, leaving him seriously injured.

Krasner acknowledged that staff mistakes led to the plea and vowed to fight any bid for early parole. Nonetheless, he called McSwain’s criticism “a cheap shot” and suggested that Democrat gains in the midterms may have prompted the recent “shrill reactions.”

Krasner has emerged as a national leader in the criminal justice reform movement since his surprise election last year. He made waves from the start by firing 31 career prosecutors in an effort to take the 300-lawyer staff in a new direction.

He’s quickly gotten to work on his agenda, advocating for shorter prison sentences, safe injection sites and sanctuary city policies.

McSwain made headlines when he opened a bold federal probe into the Roman Catholic church’s cover-up of priest sexual abuse, just after the state Attorney General released a sweeping report on the issue. And he regularly takes to Twitter to promote his law-and-order image.

Rendell believes both men have valid opinions to share in the debate over criminal justice. He just wishes they would tone it down.

“It can be a healthy debate, but they shouldn’t be critical of each other,” he said. “I can’t imagine any other city has this public dispute.”

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