Reform or Revolution, or the Process?

Tony Richardson reviews Philly D.A a documentary series that can be found on BBC iPlayer.


Philly DA: Breaking the Law can be found on BBC iPlayer

I put the question this way, because this astounding documentary series shows the US Justice system as it is alongside attempts being made to change it.

The District Attorney in each City controls the law.

The first of 6 episodes shows how Larry Krassner, a defence lawyer of 30 years in Philadelphia, decided to stand for the vacant DA’s seat. The previous incumbent had been removed for corruption.

Krassner was incredibly popular because he had successfully defended huge numbers of people against the DA’s office. More people are imprisoned there than any other state in the US, which is saying something. A particular legal ruling puts huge numbers of unconvicted people behind bars because the bail is set high and if the defendant can’t pay 10%, then they are kept in prison. Krassner made a big thing of this in his campaign. Generally he showed how the existing legal system penalises the poor.  He came out against the death penalty and the huge number of people imprisoned for minor drug offences.

He first had to win the support of the Democratic Party, which he does and then in the election he is up against a Republican, a woman who is a long-standing member of the DA’s office. He holds mass rallies and has huge support amongst the poor as well as campaigners from the Black Lives Matter movement and others. He wins in a landslide

This is happening to a small degree in a lot of areas of the US because the election of DA’s is how the system works. Throughout the process Krassner meets people from other areas to co-ordinate responses.

The DA’soffice is huge with a staff of 150, who have to deal with all the cases.  Krassner knows many of them, because he has had to fight them in order to get justice for his clients. They are experts at hiding information from the accused.

He has to battle the whole system. The police union called ‘The Fraternal Order of Police’ FOP, more than half of whom are retired, and an incredibly reactionary force, immediately declare war on him.

This was backed up by the police department. In going through the folders left by the old regime he found one which said don’t call particular policemen to the witness stand. These were people who had been proven to lie in previous cases, had used violence etc. He said this should be public knowledge because many people plea bargained without knowing that the police testimony was tainted. He demanded that the police department, who held all the details of police corruption, send the documents to him. They agreed, but it didn’t happen. Finally after all kinds of pressure they sent heavily redacted materials. He had to fight for an unredacted format. All of this is on film.

Then there is his own, inherited, workforce. They just battle him, withhold documentation and data. They refuse to look at lesser charges for minor youth crimes and other offences. He ends up sacking 30 of them and replacing them with progressives and later says he didn’t sack enough. The woman in charge of youth cases continues to sabotage, and he sacks her. All of this activity is on film.

He brings in somebody who is an expert on youth charges, who just forces change, using more progressive areas as models, and saying the youth of Philadelphia are no different.

All of his activities are attacked by the local press and media, saying he is endangering people’s lives.

His most difficult case takes one whole episode. Three years before there had been a brutal murder of a cop, who had been shopping when two drugged up robbers carried out a raid and he was shot dead. There was a massive media campaign for the death penalty. The victim’s mother and his sister were vocal in demanding the death penalty, as was FOP and all the media, knowing that one of his campaigning policies was opposition to the death penalty.

Krassner had by then formed a committee for the victims of crime, led by a woman who had been a victim. This woman noticed that the campaign had declared that he had 3 children. So she contacted the two mothers of the children, nobody, including FOP, had been near them, and they were both against the death penalty. In a discussion around the case, the mothers’ hostility to the death penalty, was raised. FOP then arranged a torrent of phone calls, to get them to change their minds.

In the end because the DA has the final call there was no death penalty, just a long sentence, without parole.

One could argue that all of this is just getting minor reforms, even though thousands more people are able to live normal lives.  Or you could say it is useful just to say it shows the system as it is, and it will only be changed by revolution. Or you could say it goes with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, ‘Extinction Rebellion’, and other non-revolutionary movements to create a mass movement against a system, that seems immoveable.

Either way you should view this amazing fly on the wall view of US justice, not so far removed from the UK’s system even if there is no election of District Attorneys.

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