Philly DA reflects on Chauvin verdict, where case against former officer Ryan Pownall stands

Larry Krasner was home staring at his television last Tuesday when a 12-person jury in Minneapolis returned a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial.

The high-profile court proceeding, which began 11 months after the 2020 Memorial Day killing of then 46-year-old George Floyd, concluded with the 45-year-old defendant being declared guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter — the full slate of charges against him.

“I was pleased … it was the right verdict,” Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney, told WHYY.

But, he said, this is really a drop in the bucket — so many of these cases were never charged. Had George Floyd been killed in the same controversial manner 20 years ago, but without video, Krasner is confident that Chauvin would have never had his day in court.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Krasner has practiced law for three decades. In that time, he said it’s “pretty uncommon” for a police officer to be charged, let alone found guilty, of an on-duty violent crime. Historically, he said, very few prosecutors would charge a police officer for anything they did on duty.

“It was bad politics,” explained the former criminal defense attorney, who pointed the blame at ambitious prosecutors who were “in cahoots” with police union leadership. Chief prosecutors, he said, have often put politics before justice.

Krasner cites the lack of criminal prosecutions against police officers in Philadelphia as the reason why there’s been little-to-no attention paid to the state’s use-of-force law, which the DA says would ensure almost any case against a cop would result in a verdict of not guilty.

“We believe the law in Pennsylvania is not fair. It’s not fair to a prosecutor who is trying to hold a police officer accountable for committing a crime on-duty that is violent.”

Isaac Gardner speaks while holding up a photo of David Jones
Isaac Gardner, with the Justice for David Jones Coalition, speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The debate over the state’s use-of-force law is the main reason for delaying the trial of Ryan Pownall, the former Philadelphia police officer who on June 8, 2017, fatally shot David Jones as he fled. Pownall was fired from the department in September of the same year.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In September of 2018, a grand jury indicted Pownall on first-degree murder charges. However, a month later, a judge reduced the charges to third-degree murder and granted Pownall, a 12-year veteran of the force, bail. The trial was set to begin in January of 2020. But Krasner, wanting “a fair trial,” did something he characterized as “unusual.”

“We filed an appeal to try to show that certain aspects of our jury instructions in our law needed to be corrected.”

So, why didn’t Krasner and his team appeal this law in the months following the indictment? Well, the district attorney asserts that it’s an issue that has not been brought in the past. “This was not something that was transparently obvious at the beginning,” Krasner said.

On the same day that the Chauvin verdict was read aloud — and the defendant was taken into custody due to his bail being revoked — the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the criminal prosecution of Pownall, who is charged with criminal homicide, possession of an instrument of crime, and recklessly endangering another person.

It’s been nearly 20 years since a Philadelphia police officer was criminally charged. But that case never saw a courtroom, as a judge twice tossed out the murder charges.

The state’s high court will make the ultimate decision on the efficacy of the use-of-force law, which states that an officer can use deadly force when a suspect has committed or attempted a forcible felony or is attempting to escape and possesses a deadly weapon, or otherwise indicates that he will endanger human life or inflict serious bodily injury unless arrested without delay.

Krasner wants the “unconstitutional law to be thrown out.” Can it be rewritten? The DA would certainly welcome that, as long as it’s “written in compliance with the constitution.”

“This is about police violence and what they are permitted to do under what circumstances,” Krasner said. “Everybody understands that sometimes there is a different context where police are involved, they have different obligations. But that doesn’t mean when someone is running away, who is unarmed, whose hands are empty, who is just trying to get away, that doesn’t mean it’s time for target practice on their spine.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal