Sergio Cea of Reclaim Philadelphia speaks during a protest outside the building where members of the Pa. House held hearings on the effort to impeach Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

The Pa. House panel deciding whether to impeach District Attorney Larry Krasner began public hearings Thursday at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Inside, state lawmakers on the recently-formed Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order heard testimony from Philadelphians who’d lost loved ones to gun violence. Outside, demonstrators hired circus performers to frame the whole effort as a sham.

The hearings provide the most substantive look yet inside the investigation, which tries to connect Krasner’s policies to Philly’s spike in shootings. Findings will eventually be summed up in a final report, where the five committee members — three Republicans and two Democrats — may formally recommend a House impeachment vote.

In opening remarks Thursday, John Lawrence, the Chester County state rep serving as committee chair, sought to distance its work from claims of partisan attacks. “If you are here today expecting, hoping, or fearing simple-minded mudslinging, you will be disappointed,” the GOP legislator said.

At a nearby protest convened by the Philadelphia Working Families Party and others, demonstrators cast their doubts on their legitimacy. But several expressed worry the effort could nevertheless be effective.

“It’s a farce,” Sergio Hyland, a political organizer for the Working Families Party, told Billy Penn, about the impeachment effort. “But unfortunately it’s a farce that is threatening to become a reality.”

Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature, and several Democrats, including some from Philly, have voted with them on this issue.

Pennsylvania state Rep. John Lawrence (second from left) opens the public hearing at the Navy Yard Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Philadelphians testify to malpractice across city departments

Five Philadelphians affected by gun violence testified on Thursday — one in person, and four via video. They each put some blame on the DA’s Office, but also critiqued Philly Police homicide detectives and the city’s available victim services.

Some witnesses described having to do their own investigatory work. Jennifer Meleski, in videotaped testimony, said in the aftermath of her son’s shooting death, she went door to door to seek out footage of the crime.

She referenced a tattoo parlor she thought might have captured pertinent information.

“Probably if [homicide detectives] would’ve went there and asked for the footage we would’ve had a definite on the license plate. They never even went,” Meleski testified. “There’s a kid that lived across the street, he saw the whole thing … he was never questioned by homicide detectives.”

Nakisha Billa, the sole witness to share her testimony in person, spoke at length about her son Domonic who was killed last summer, and named a series of Philadelphians who have died by gun violence, including Sean Toomey, Tiffany Fletcher, Nicolas Elizalde, and more.

“Slaps on the wrist are given for violent crimes,” Billa said of the district attorney’s policies. Billa was initially excited when Krasner was elected, but said she was testifying to try and protect other Philly mothers from her experience.

Though a native with deep roots here, she said she’s ready to leave.

“I want out. I want out of the City of Philadelphia,” Billa said. “This is the only place that I’ve ever lived, born and raised, where all of my extended family members are, but I want out.”

Witness Karen McConnell, a Philly resident affected by gun violence, testifies by video at the Navy Yard hearing Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Protesters call investigations a ‘circus,’ but fear the outcome

At the Navy Yard on Thursday, Krasner supporters from a number of progressive and criminal justice reform organizations held a rally that featured circus performers.

With local band Snacktime providing a soundtrack, jugglers, clowns, and people in animal costumes, pranced around. The short stunt was meant to frame the proceedings as a “political circus.”

When the hearings were first announced, Krasner’s lawyers sent the House committee a letter with several requests, including that they be held at a more accessible venue and time, and that the DA himself be allowed to publicly testify. All were declined.

“I’m concerned that people may not understand the stakes of what is happening here,” Pa. Sen. Nikil Saval, who represents the district where hearings were held, told Billy Penn.

Saval compared the impeachment investigation to other measures from Pennslyvania Republicans to discount Philadelphia voters, including claims of mass fraud in the 2020 election and legislative attacks on mail ballots.

“There is a direct line between those things and what is happening here today, so if people don’t see that line, then there is absolutely a risk of this succeeding,” he said. “This is a five-alarm fire at this point.”

Circus performers support a protest across the street from the committee hearings Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

Committee could have other targets, chair says

Last month, the House overwhelmingly voted to hold Krasner in contempt, saying he refused to comply with a committee subpoena. Several Democrats voted in favor of that, even ones who say they generally support the DA.

Krasner says he can’t legally supply the requested documents — related to the case of former PPD officer Ryan Pownall — because they are part of a grand jury investigation, where such records are kept confidential.

Krasner told Fox 29 the subpoena asked him to “reveal secret grand jury notes of testimony, which is exactly how Kathleen Kane ended her career as a prosecutor and went to jail.”

His office also argues the whole thing is unconstitutional, and that if state lawmakers remove a city DA, it disenfranchises the Philadelphians who voted for him.

At the Navy Yard hearing, law professor Bruce Antkowiak of Saint Vincent University in Westmoreland County essentially agreed, saying local voters are the “ultimate corrective authority.”

Antkowiak stressed that Pennsylvania gives local prosecutors a wide berth to enforce the law how they see fit. “It appears that the judgment of Pennsylvania has been to allow the electorate to have the final word on whether the policies of a given district attorney are in accord with their liking and should continue for another term in office,” he wrote in a prepared summary of his testimony.

Hearings are expected to continue on Friday. After Thursday’s proceedings, committee chair Lawrence was asked why Krasner is being singled out, when testimony also implicated several other city leaders, including Philly Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Jim Kenney.

The Chester County state rep reminded people that the panel’s final report could comment on more than just Krasner’s position in office.

“The committee has a broad mandate,” Lawrence said. “There’s a lot of things we need to take a look at, not just the statistics on crime in Philadelphia, but what solutions can we come up with.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...