Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and his lone challenger in the May 18 Democratic primary, Carlos Vega, clashed early and often in a debate on NBC10 and KYW Newsradio Wednesday evening.
Krasner slammed Vega as "having no regard for the truth," and quickly brought up the exoneration of Anthony Wright, who had been charged with murder and found guilty in 1993. The jury at a new trial after years of appeals in 2014 found Wright not guilty. Vega was one of the prosecutors at the retrial. Wright was awarded $10 million from the City of Philadelphia after a civil rights lawsuit.
Krasner said the case exemplifies the "win-at-all-costs" prosecutorial approach of Vega during his time as an assistant district attorney.
Vega, meanwhile, said Krasner should be held personally responsible for the historically high numbers of homicides and shootings in Philadelphia since the start of 2020.
"Mr. Krasner, you have blood on your hands," Vega said, before reading off names of several people killed in the last couple years. "The DA's office has dropped the ball. Their attorneys are not doing their jobs."
Krasner defended his first term by pointing to an 85% conviction rate on violent crime cases and saying that he has followed through on his promise to reform the city's criminal justice system.
The two candidates met face-to-face for an hour Wednesday evening at the Comcast Technology Center.
Krasner, seeking a second term, defeated six other candidates in the Democratic primary four years ago. Vega is a former assistant district attorney who Krasner fired along with dozens of other prosecutors after taking office in 2018.
As Krasner and Vega were removing their mics following the debate, the animosity between the two grew sharper. “I’m your worst nightmare. You made a mistake a long time ago,” said Vega. “I’ve been in your head a long time."
"Sure, Carlos,” Krasner replied.
“Do you want to give me a ride home?” Vega then asked.
"I think you need to walk,” Krasner replied, before Vega said “do you want to shake hands” and offered to “hug it out” as Krasner walked out of the studio.
During the debate, on the topic of juvenile justice, Krasner said his office has changed the way the criminal justice system handles underage suspects. He said nearly all youth charges now stay in juvenile court.
"We have managed in many ways to bring about deep transformational changes in juvenile justice," Krasner said.
Vega said he would continue to overhaul the way juveniles are treated when charged with crimes. He suggested bringing a "child's court" to Philadelphia that has been initiated in other big cities, including New York City.
The two candidates also sparred over issues involving how to work with the police department on cases and how to hold police officers accountable for their on-duty actions.
"The elephant in the room is that the Fraternal Order of Police has spent $120,000 on my opponent's campaign," Krasner said. "They've done it for a reason. The leadership of the FOP does not want accountability."
Vega said he would repair the relationship between the DA's office and the police department.
"With respect to vilifying the police, I have to be humble enough to be quiet and work with the police department," Vega said.
Krasner has become a leader nationally in a push to reform criminal justice by ending what he describes as a culture of mass incarceration, and holding police officers more accountable.
Vega and his supporters, including the city's police union, are making the election a referendum on that progressive reform agenda.
Krasner's campaign describes Vega as a vanguard of the "lock 'em up" law-and-order approach to criminal justice in recent decades that caused mass incarceration and a aggressive prosecutorial strategy.
Krasner has not disappointed most of his progressive supporters. He led an overhaul of Philadelphia's cash bail system, supported decriminalization of certain minor crimes, and has vigorously pushed for better policing.
That last priority has made the city police union a constant foe to Krasner's reform agenda.
One of Vega's main contentions, that Krasner's reforms have contributed to the city's soaring gun violence, remained central to his debate responses Wednesday.
"There are no consequences, which is why the murder rate has gone up," Vega said at the debate.
Gun violence has increased nationally. Homicides are up 30, 40, even 50% year over year in places like Chicago, Oklahoma City, New York City, Los Angeles and Phoenix, to name just of a few. Experts believe the pandemic played a large part in a conflux of problems that created historically high homicide totals across the country.
Four years ago, Krasner had billionaire George Soros on his side. The progressive philanthropist spent millions on local DA's races across the country hoping to reform criminal justice, and he pumped nearly $1.5 million into political advertising that supported Krasner's promise to end mass incarceration in Philadelphia.
Krasner and Vega had nearly identical amounts of campaign cash at the start of April, according to their finance reports. Each had roughly $350,000, though Krasner had already spent about $250,000 in the previous few months while Vega had spent about $100,000.
The next campaign finance reports are due in early May.
HOW TO VOTE IN MAY 18 PRIMARY: Registered Democrats in Philadelphia will be able to cast votes in the race between Vega and Krasner. The deadline to register to vote or to change your party designation was May 3. Voters can vote by mail or in person. Mail-in applications are due by May 11. CLICK HERE to apply.