PHILADELPHIA – The family of a slain Philadelphia police sergeant believes the district attorney is favoring criminals. And they are not happy about it.
When the new DA came to Constance Wilson’s West Philadelphia rowhouse last month, about 25 of her relatives and friends were gathered inside, sitting on couches and chairs, standing by windows and walls, reported The Inquirer.
Wilson’s grandson, Sgt. Robert Wilson III, was shot and killed trying to stop armed robbery suspects at a North Philadelphia GameStop. His actions were described as heroic by the police commissioner as well as the mayor. Yet, for three years the two men charged with killing Wilson III have been awaiting a death penalty trial.
But there is a major conflict.
District Attorney Larry Krasner campaigned on a promise never to seek capital punishment. As a result, Constance Wilson and her supporters wanted to know whether his office would continue to seek the death penalty. To their dismay, Krasner — who brought with him several top staffers — seemed to dance around a firm position for two hours, Wilson recalled Thursday. She described him as standoffish, almost nonchalant, acting as if he’d shown up simply to say that he had done so.
“He never gave any direct answers,” said Wilson, 76.
Her granddaughter, Shaki’ra Wilson-Burroughs, 35, was more blunt. “It feels like he’s favoring the criminals,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like he’s advocating for the victims.”
The prosecution of the gunmen accused of the sergeant’s murder, Ramone Williams and Carlton Hipps, represents a political quandary for Krasner. Wilson’s family and the police favor the death penalty, while Krasner’s liberal supporters hope the self-styled reformer sticks to his word.
Now the city’s top prosecutor finally may have to make his choice. The case is due for a status update Wednesday in which prosecutors could say whether they will pursue capital punishment. The trial is scheduled to begin next month.
Hedge your bets, anyone?
Through a representative, Krasner declined to be interviewed about the case. In a statement, the representative said that the case remains under review and that the office “is committed to finding justice for the Wilson family.”
Krasner said on the campaign trail that he would never seek the death penalty because it is a waste of resources and does not deter crime. Capital punishment is legal in Pennsylvania, but no inmate has been executed since 1999. Moreover, Gov. Wolf placed a moratorium on executions in 2015.
Consequently, Sgt. Wilson’s relatives are bracing for the death penalty to be taken off the table. They said Krasner told them at the grandmother’s home that an internal committee at his office would have to vote on the potential penalty. But when they asked who was on the committee, said Wilson-Burroughs, he offered no names.
So it appears an “anonymous group” will be responsible for the decision that wounds Sgt. Wilson’s family? Why else would they remain nameless? Furthermore, does Krasner expect people to believe that he hasn’t already come to a conclusion?
They also asked to address the committee before it made its decision. According to the Wilson family, Krasner’s victim advocate, Movita Johnson-Harrell, said at the meeting that she would do so for them. The relatives said they had never met her before, and have not heard from her since.
Wow, does that sound suspicious?
“It just seems like we were on track,” said Wilson-Burroughs. “This is [like] starting over.”
Sgt. Wilson, 30, an eight-year veteran of the force, was widely praised as a hero after he was murdered on March 5, 2015, inside a GameStop at 2101 W. Lehigh Ave. He had stopped at the store while on duty to buy a video game for his son.
Brothers Williams and Hipps, according to prosecutors, came in after Wilson, hoping to rob the store. When they saw the officer in uniform, authorities have said, the men pulled their guns and started shooting. The crime was captured on surveillance video.
Wilson returned fire, but was struck by several rounds. Each suspect was arrested nearby; Wilson was declared dead at Temple University Hospital.
Then-Commissioner Charles Ramsey said at Wilson’s funeral: “I have never witnessed an act of bravery like that I saw that day. Never. It’s one of the bravest days we’ve ever seen anyone live.”
The Police Department’s medal of valor was renamed in memory of Wilson, and his badge number – 9990 – was retired.
Wilson-Burroughs on Thursday wore a T-shirt with those bold blue numerals. She believes that her brother’s killers deserve the most serious punishment allowed by law because of the nature of the crime: the deliberate targeting of an officer.
“They took my brother’s life and didn’t think twice about it,” she said. “They could’ve left [the store]. It’s a capital crime.”
Police Commissioner Richard Ross said Thursday that he agrees. He declined to comment further.
John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the police officers union, said Friday: “If there’s ever a case for capital punishment, this would be it.”
Constance Wilson said she thinks Krasner should pass the case to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro because Michael Coard, a defense lawyer in the case, has been a prominent Krasner supporter and was on his transition team.
Krasner “is friend’s with the enemy,” Wilson declared. She questioned whether the district attorney would be impartial, given the circumstances.
West Chester lawyer Samuel C. Stretton, an expert in judicial ethics who also has an office in Center City, said in an interview that many prosecutors and defense lawyers in Philadelphia know each other. As long as they communicate about cases within official channels, it’s generally not considered a conflict to face a friend or former partner, he said.
Wilson-Burroughs said she told Krasner about her discomfort with the direction he seemed to want to take the case.
Three years after her brother’s death, she is frustrated.
“It seems like everything is kept hush-hush,” she said. “We’re not getting anything from them.”
In 2017 Florida Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the prosecution of a man accused of shooting and killing two Kissimmee police officers from State Attorney Aramis Ayala.
Scott said he removed Ayala from the prosecution of Everett Glenn Miller, 45, because she refuses to seek the death penalty in any case prosecuted by her office.
And that wasn’t the first time. Scott did the same thing earlier in 2017 when Ayala refused to seek the death penalty while prosecuting accused cop-killer Markeith Loyd. He is accused of murdering Orlando police Master Sergeant Debra Clayton.
Scott asked Ayala to recuse herself from these cases, but she refused.
Should Krasner recuse himself if he refuses to seek the death penalty in the murder of Sgt. Wilson? If capital punishment is an option, it would seem to be the appropriate thing to do.