Carlos Vega is a candidate for Philadelphia District Attorney, challenging incumbent Larry Krasner. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The last time Larry Krasner and Carlos Vega crossed paths in the courtroom was 2016.

It was Krasner’s last major trial before launching his campaign for district attorney. The longtime defense attorney — better known for suing police over civil rights violations than litigating murder cases — was representing one of two 35-year-old men pinned with a gruesome triple homicide at Lorena’s Grocery in Southwest Philadelphia five years prior.

The three week trial revolved around the fatal shooting of the bodega owner, his wife, and his sister in front of the couple’s two teenage daughters.

Krasner argued witness testimony was unreliable, but Vega convinced jurors the daughters’ memory of the two killers was unshakable. “She is seeing death before her,” Vega told the jury at the time. “It’s that face she can’t forget.”

A guilty verdict followed, and a Court of Common Pleas judge sentenced the men to three consecutive life sentences. Six weeks later, Krasner launched his bid for district attorney on a reformist platform that made him a darling of the progressive criminal justice movement, garnering local and national support that helped lift him to victory.

When Krasner took office in 2017, Vega was one of the first veteran prosecutors fired. Four years later, Vega is challenging Krasner in the Democratic primary.

It’s not a grudge match, said Vega, 64, who has sued Krasner for age discrimination over his firing.

He says violence has gone unchecked during Krasner’s reign and crime victims are being mistreated by the office. Krasner’s campaign rejects both claims.

What’s undeniable is that the re-election campaign comes after a brutal year that wrought nearly 500 homicides and more than 2,200 shooting victims in Philadelphia — a surge in violence that has continued into 2021, according to police data.

“I can’t sit back and let this happen because I live in this city,” Vega told Billy Penn. “I’m very concerned about my children.”

Vega runs with support from the Fraternal Order of Police union in a race that observers expect to pit so-called “law and order” policies against Krasner’s agenda — even as Vega casts himself as a more sensible reformer who will still hold police accountable for abuses and seek systemic reforms to reduce mass incarceration.

From NYC bodega kid to Philly prosecution pro

The bodega triple murder case sat close to Vega’s heart. His mother Norma, who came to New York City from Puerto Rico at age 16, ran a bodega in Manhattan, where Vega recalls a childhood witnessing crime up close.

“I remember at night sitting on a milk crate to stock the fridge, and her telling me about the different signs: look at their hands, look at what they’re doing,” Vega said. “I witnessed a lot of shoplifting. The store was robbed at gunpoint and knifepoint several times.”

He was only seven years old, he said, when he realized he wanted to become a homicide prosecutor. The inspiration came from the 1930s film noir “Marked Woman,” in which Humphrey Bogart plays a district attorney who teams with nightclub “call girl” Bette Davis to nab a murderous mobster.

“You know, I’d like to be that guy,” Vega remembered thinking about Bogart’s character. “He’s pretty cool, he’s tough and he’s doing the right thing.”

Vega worked his way to law school while watching friends get swallowed by the drugs and gang life of the 1970s. His break came in the ’80s, when the future Gov. Ed Rendell, then Philly DA, recruited him to join the team. It would be the last time Vega needed a new job for 35 years.

Carlos Vega carries a clipboard through his Point Breeze neighborhood, gathering petitions for his run for Philadelphia District Attorney. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Touted as the first Latino homicide prosecutor in Pennsylvania, Vega’s background gave him an edge in an office that is notoriously white. His fluency in Spanish, he said, allowed him to build trust with witnesses where other prosecutors could not.

“He was a terrific trial lawyer,” Rendell said. “Juries liked him and judges like him — not because he was a pushover, but because he was fair.” (This is not an official endorsement in the race, Rendell clarified to Billy Penn.)

Vega rose quickly through the DAO ranks, landing in his coveted homicide unit. He made headlines often, regularly casting the accused killer’s deeds in stark moral light.

Convictions among the more than 400 cases he’s prosecuted over four decades include a “monster” of a ’90s contract killer who slayed at least four people, including a pregnant woman; a police officer who killed two people in 2000 drunk driving crash; and the “Black Madam,” the self-declared “Michaelangelo of buttocks injections” in 2015. “Evil,” said Vega of her illegal practice, which killed a Philadelphia dancer.

Vega worked under five different district attorneys, not counting his few days under the Krasner administration before he was let go.

Gun violence sits at center stage

During his time in the District Attorney’s Office, Vega played a supporting role in the mechanisms of mass incarceration that Krasner has said he seeks to dismantle. If he gained control of the office, he said he would ramp up prosecution for some offenses Krasner has treated more lightly, like shoplifting. Vega also has a history of seeking the death penalty in past homicide cases — a practice that Krasner ran against. Pennsylvania has not executed a convicted felon since 1999.

Yet Vega’s platform does not run counter to Krasner on every point. He vows to prosecute police officers for criminal abuses, and maintain a ban on cash bail for certain low-level offenses.

The city’s gun violence epidemic sits center stage in the race.

Krasner’s office has prosecuted an increasing number of gun-related cases over the last year. The office recorded a record-high 313 firearm violation charges in January of this year — nearly triple the average monthly count when Krasner took office, and the highest month by volume since at least 2015, according to the DA’s data dashboard.

But Vega and other critics blame inexperienced prosecutors for botching an inappropriate number of those cases after charges are filed.

Krasner campaign manager Brandon Evans said allegations that the office is weak on gun crimes are “preposterous.” A DAO analysis found that, of the gun cases Krasner oversaw between 2018 and 2019, only 25% were dismissed or withdrawn for any reason. Of those, about 75% fell apart due to either lack of evidence or witnesses failing to appear.

Evans also said Krasner’s opponents are using crime victims “as political pawns,” while the office continues to provide victim services.

He cast the race as a choice between moving forward or returning to the old days of overcrowded jails at no benefit to public safety.

“Voters will have to choose between reform, which actually prioritizes public safety, or the Trump-supporting FOP and their candidate,” Evans said.

Money will play a major role as both candidates fundraise from their distinct bases. But victory will also hinge on who can secure a broad coalition of political support like the one that helped lift Krasner to victory in 2017.

Political groups and influential labor unions typically do not make endorsements until all the candidates are declared. Petitions to enter the race are due March 9, and the dynamics could change dramatically if more Democratic candidates emerge.

Defense attorney Chuck Peruto has announced plans to run on the Republican ticket.

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...