This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: A piece from the Atlantic centers on Larry Krasner and the race for Philadelphia DA. In 2017, Democrats in Philadelphia gave the national movement for criminal-justice reform “one of its biggest victories” by electing Krasner, a longtime civil-rights attorney who campaigned on policies that would reduce mass incarceration. He quickly moved to deliver on his promises, firing more than 30 veteran prosecutors, scrapping bail for a host of minor crimes, and all but ending the prosecution of juveniles as adults. By the start of the pandemic last year, the city’s jail population had dropped by more than 30%, to its lowest level since 1985. But now, Krasner is running for reelection at a very different political moment. In early 2017, gun violence and homicides were relatively stable. The year before Krasner took office, 315 murders occurred in Philadelphia; last year, there were 499 – the most in over three decades. Krasner’s challenger is one of the prosecutors he fired, Carlos Vega, a Democrat backed by the city’s police union who is “accusing the DA of sacrificing public safety in his pursuit of reform.” The primary, on May 18, will “test the durability of progressive prosecution in a city that until recently has chosen leaders who have championed a punitive approach to combatting crime.” And the Appeal reports from California, where, last month, Rob Bonta was confirmed as state attorney general, becoming the second Asian-American (after Kamala Harris) to occupy the role. Bonta’s record – since 2012, he has served as a state legislator representing a district in the East Bay – has earned him a reputation as a “champion of criminal justice reform.” Over the past nine years, he has authored or sponsored bills to ban private prisons, end felony murder prosecutions, and mandate that DAs recuse themselves from investigations into police misconduct if they have accepted money from police officers’ unions. But “meaningfully advancing the legacy and promise of activism from the vantage point of the attorney general’s office will be a far greater challenge”: the state DOJ will “almost certainly be recalcitrant to change, and Bonta could fall prey to the same forces that stayed his predecessors’ hands from the bold action required to end mass incarceration and transform current systems of policing in California.” Ultimately, Rob Bonta’s career has “hinged on the idea that the law can be used to engender social justice”; his elevation to California’s “top cop” position, where he will become responsible for the vast bureaucracy of the state’s criminal legal system, “will be a crucible for that belief.”
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: The Washington Post reports from Elizabeth City, NC, where the fatal police shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. last month has “aggravated racial tensions simmering below the surface.” Until April 21, many Elizabeth City residents – most of whom, along with the city’s mayor, manager, and police chief, are Black – thought of police violence as something that happened elsewhere. But Brown’s death, and the decision not to release the full body-camera footage of the incident, have “awakened a deep sense of suspicion and mistrust in a community that had thought it might be insulated.” In the wake of Brown’s killing, a piece from the New York Times surveys the ongoing debate over police body cameras. As body-worn cameras have become more commonplace, and as public pressure on officials to take police accountability more seriously has mounted, so too have demands to quickly release the footage of violent or fatal encounters between law enforcement officers and civilians. When “a video can mean the difference between drawing attention or dying in obscurity,” the question of timing has become an “important and unsettled new frontier of policymaking.” The Los Angeles Times reports from California, where, despite weeks of street protests over the killing of George Floyd and the state’s reputation for progressive politics, police reform legislation is struggling – including a plan common in other states to oust bad cops. Across the nation, 46 states have rules preventing abusive officers from “jumping jobs”: furthering their careers by switching agencies even after they’ve committed serious misconduct or been fired. California is not one of them – but a proposed law to change that is now facing unexpectedly fierce opposition at the Capitol. And a piece from Vox outlines “how 70 years of cop shows taught us to valorize the police.” Today, the “heroic police officer” is one of our culture’s “default protagonists”; our screens are filled with depictions of heroic cop after heroic cop. This wasn’t always the case: in 1910, the International Association of Chiefs of Police was moved to adopt a resolution condemning the movie business for its depictions of police. The movies, the IACP complained, made crime look “fun and glamorous,” while the police were “sometimes made to appear ridiculous.” Indeed, throughout the first half of the 20th century, popular culture treated police officers as punchlines, “inept buffoons to be mocked, and, well, ridiculed.” The piece traces the rise of the “hero cop” trope over the subsequent decades, exploring the origins of the modern police procedural as a vast pro-law-enforcement propaganda machine.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from Atavist Magazine centers on Adolfo Davis, the “invisible kid.” In 1993, at the age of 16, Davis was convicted in adult court in Illinois as an accomplice to a double murder. He claimed that he was there when the killings happened, but that he didn’t pull the trigger; nonetheless, he was given a mandatory sentence of life without parole. For decades, Davis fought a lonely battle behind bars for his freedom, and was finally released last year under a plea deal enabled by changes in juvenile sentencing laws. Now, after nearly 30 years in prison, Davis is back home, struggling to find his footing in a dangerous and almost unrecognizably different world. A piece from Smithsonian Magazine looks back to 1722, when the murder of a Native hunter shook colonial America and spurred some of the country’s earliest experiments with alternative visions of justice. When a Susquehannock hunter was killed by a pair of traders in colonial Pennsylvania, colonial officials promised to extract “the full measure of English justice”; they set about apprehending the perpetrators, organizing for a trial and ultimately for punishment, “imagining this to be the height of respect and proper procedure.” But this English-style process was not what Indigenous communities wanted or expected: rather, they advocated for, and ultimately won, “a process of acknowledgment, restitution and then reconciliation.” And a piece from GQ recounts the “made-for-Hollywood” story of the House of Gucci. In the early ‘80s, Maurizio Gucci – grandson of the brand’s flamboyantly named founder, Guccio Gucci – inherited his father’s majority stake in the company and launched an all-out legal war against his own uncle for full control. Maurizio had plans to make Gucci “the most modern luxury business in the world”; instead, his plotting ended with him losing the whole company. Then, in 1995, Maurizio was assassinated, gunned down in broad daylight as he entered his post-Gucci office in Milan. And it appeared that his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani – a “beautiful if ostentatious Elizabeth Taylor lookalike” – had ordered the hit. “I think this was a story where life is stranger than fiction,” says Sara Gay Forden, whose 2001 book about the case, The House of Gucci, is set for a buzzy big-screen adaptation starring Lady Gaga as Patrizia.
In culture/true crime: The New Yorker reviews On Mother’s Day, a short documentary by Chinese-American filmmaker Ellie Wen. In 2018, as an MFA student, Wen learned of Mama’s Day Bail Out, an annual campaign organized by the National Bail Out Collective, which focuses on pretrial-detention reform. The collective connected Wen with Anita Williams, an Oakland-based activist whose son, Carey, is serving a 66-year prison sentence. Their relationship, and Anita’s decades-long fight to free her son, became the focus of On Mother’s Day, an intimate window onto the enduring bond between parent and child and the ties that persist through the separation of incarceration. The New York Times Magazine highlights photographer Deana Lawson. Lawson, the first photographer to win the Guggenheim Museum’s prestigious Hugo Boss Prize, is at the forefront of a larger movement of Black artists who are “putting together new ways of seeing and presenting Black people.” In her searingly intimate, nostalgia-tinged portraits of strangers, their families, and the domestic spaces they inhabit, Lawson finds “glamour in the quotidian, establishing it as already beautiful, already enough.” Her “regal, loving, unburdened photographs imagine a world in which Black people are free from the distortions of history,” free to be simply as they are. And Variety reviews The Crime of the Century, a new HBO documentary from director Alex Gibney. The film centers on America’s opioid epidemic, exploring the “origins, extent, and fallout of one of the most devastating public health tragedies of our time.” Through interviews, leaked documents, and access to behind-the-scenes investigations, Gibney makes the case that “the opioid crisis is more than a human tragedy that has claimed half a million lives… It’s part of what America has become.”