PBS Series About Philly DA Larry Krasner Asks Unanswerable Questions

Larry Krasner surrounded by photographers
Larry Krasner and his office’s policies provide fodder for tense debate in the upcoming series “Philly D.A.” | Photo by Yoni Brook

There is a sequence toward the end of the second episode of “Philly D.A.” that is genuinely sublime.

In minutes, filmmakers Ted Passon, Nicole Salazar and Yoni Brook make the case for their entire project, an eight-part docuseries on the election of Larry Krasner and subsequent changes made to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

The state is about to lose a homicide case after it’s revealed that the key evidence that would have identified the perpetrator cannot be used in court; two detectives searched the primary suspect’s phone without a warrant, on camera, and then lied about it.

In a 10-minute sequence, the filmmakers introduce you to the family members of victim Tafari Lawrence, alternating between interviews and head-on shots of their sullen, slumping faces.

Lawrence’s mother, Dionne Galloway, does the best she can to prepare her children for what she already fears will come next — that the man who killed their brother will likely escape responsibility because of the state’s carelessness — but even she is only human.

On the sidewalk outside of the Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, after the terrible inevitability has been spoken, she pulls herself together to ask Krasner questions that can only technically be answered. He can use words to apologize, to tell her that the responsible detectives have been pulled from the homicide division, but her primary question — “Why?” — can’t be answered so simply.

The questions that animate that sequence are the same that Krasner asks himself in “Philly D.A.,” and the same that the filmmakers ask of us.

Why does the power of the state have to be used in this way, such that it grinds down and impoverishes the people with the fewest resources to defend themselves? How can it be changed? And who should change it? What is criminal law meant to do, and for whom? What should the role of police be, and is a man who made a career out of suing them the person to work that out?

It’s not immediately clear that these are the questions being asked, because the first 15 minutes of the initial episode veer toward Krasner hagiography — the tells-it-like-it-is defense attorney fights the staid establishment to become district attorney. The quintessential Krasner footage is all there, including his singing The Clash’s “Clampdown” onstage with the band Sheer Mag at First Unitarian Church. Opponents tell Krasner that his ideas are a dangerous experiment, and he counters that the status quo is the dangerous experiment. Krasner holds rallies, debates, shakes hands and then wins. It’s intoxicating, it’s fun and it’s basically an advertisement.

But when “Philly D.A.” shifts the focus ever so slightly to “Philly District Attorney’s Office,” it becomes a much more interesting viewing experience — and not just because the tense, wonderfully varied score from musician Dan Deacon shows up more frequently.
Fighting the establishment by taking it over isn’t just a slogan, but a complicated, excruciating process. Career prosecutors deemed unfit for the new administration’s vision lose their jobs in a manner that seems designed for maximum embarrassment. Those who are left behind only have a moment to breathe, as their new colleagues and superiors were elected on the promise to radically change their functions. The Fraternal Order of Police, a powerful union in city politics, declares all-out war on the new administration.

The office holdovers make the most compelling critics of Krasner, and it’s no coincidence that the battles fought over juvenile detention and police misconduct transparency are among the most dramatic portions of the first two episodes. It’s easy to get an audience to instinctively side with Krasner when the opposing voice is FOP President John McNesby; it’s harder, and more worthwhile, to see him and his allies have to argue their philosophy with the people at the next cubicle over. The filmmakers also include the voices of voters, police officers, journalists, crime victims, community activists and local news anchors.

The implementation of Krasner’s vision and that of key allies Bob Listenbee, Patricia Cummings and Dana Bazelon is the propulsive force of the series. But the context of Philadelphia’s troubled history and the residents who live in its wake are what that vision is responding to, and the filmmakers provide helpful accounts of the MOVE bombing and the career of Frank Rizzo for viewers who may be unfamiliar.

Though there is certainly much more to the Krasner story, reviewers were provided with just two of the eight-episode series, which debuts on PBS on April 20. I can’t wait to see the rest.

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