Our community’s outrage over Knott, Harrigan and Williams: what the outcomes we might desire would mean for our criminal-justice system


The crimes committed against Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught on Sept. 11, 2014, were heinous. As a community, we have the right to be outraged. Kathryn Knott, Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams, all young suburbanites, came into our city and, on the outskirts of our neighborhood, these outsiders viciously assaulted two of our own while calling them faggots. This outrages me.

It is easy, and perhaps natural, to want to see these three serve decades in prison. It is likewise easy, and perhaps natural, to decry Harrigan and Williams’ “lenient” plea bargains that “only” included three and five years of probation, respectively, and 200 hours of community service. The same goes for the jury’s decision to convict Knott of “only” simple assault and not felonious assault, for which she would have been eligible for a lengthy prison stint.

As a member of the LGBT community, I understand these feelings, and I am not immune to experiencing them. But I also see the publicity surrounding this terrible case as an opportunity to take a step back and explain that this case is, for all that it makes us feel, an example of how our criminal-justice system works — and how it must work given current conditions. I also see it as an opportunity to explain the implications of what many of the opinions I have read would mean for our criminal-justice system.

This case involved an aggravated assault — one of the 5,389 aggravated assaults that the Philadelphia Police Department recorded in 2014. This figure does not include the other 2,065 aggravated assaults that involved the use of a firearm in our city in 2014. If it were possible to make an arrest, charge and try every single person for every single one of the 7,456 aggravated assaults that occurred in 2014 in just one day (which isn’t even close to realistic), it would take Philadelphia more than 20 years to try each of these cases. Keep in mind that I am only citing statistics on aggravated assault. I am also only citing statistics for one year. This does not include the 248 homicides, 1,145 rapes, 6,924 robberies or 9,657 burglaries that occurred during the same year as this case. 

My example is purposely overly simplistic and ignores, among other things, the fact that police do not make arrests in the majority of cases that come to their attention. It does, however, drive home my first point: If Philadelphia was to abolish plea bargaining, the entire criminal-justice system would seize. For better or for worse, plea bargains are necessary for our criminal-justice system to function.

Harrigan and Williams’ plea deals are not unique. According to a 2011 report on plea and charge bargaining released by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, it is estimated that between 90-95 percent of state and federal court cases are resolved through plea bargaining. It is easy to denounce plea bargaining as outrageous in this case because it hits us so close to home.  But those who believe that a deal should not have been made in this case should also be prepared to eliminate plea bargaining in the thousands of violent crime cases that occur in our city annually and the breakdown of the criminal justice system that such a policy would bring.

Headlines of outlets covering the plea bargains of Harrigan and Williams included, “Appalling plea bargains in gay-bashing case” and “Philadelphia: No jail time for two alleged gay bashers.” We could endlessly debate what an appropriate sentence for these three might be. I won’t do that here. But those who wish to have these discussions should place them within the broader context of crime in Philadelphia, and the capacity for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to house those whom we convict and send away for what some of us might like to be forever. 

The fact of the matter is that prisons are overcrowded in both Pennsylvania and nationally.  From a policy perspective, it is necessary to lock up fewer people in Pennsylvania given the capacities of our prisons. Consider the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ November population report: 19 of the 27 correctional facilities in our state are operating over the capacity that they were designed for. The least-populated facility in our state is operating at 85.5-percent capacity. The most overcrowded facility is operating at a capacity of 119 percent. Those in favor of lengthy prison sentences for the three involved in this case should also be prepared to include incarceration in the thousands of other cases involving violence where offenders were not sentenced to jail or prison time. That said, they must also be in favor of building more prisons to house these individuals. Further, they must be prepared to support prison expansions at a time when our incarceration rate in this country has surpassed 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents, which is well above any other nation. To do so, they must be willing to expand correctional budgets to pay for their policy, which were already at $69 billion in the United States in 2006, and had already been increased by 660 percent since 1982. This would require raising taxes or shuffling funding away from things like schools.

Knott opted to take her case to trial, and she was convicted of, among other crimes, simple assault, as opposed to aggravated assault. Here again, outrage was expressed. However, Knott’s case represents an example of how our jury system is supposed to work. A group of Knott’s peers came together, assessed the evidence in the case and came to an agreement as to what, based on their interpretation of the criminal law, she was guilty of. Some of the jurors have said they wanted convictions on aggravated-assault charges. Other jurors did not support that verdict. So the jury worked for three days to compromise and ultimately settled on a verdict that they were all comfortable with. Should any of us ever be in the unfortunate position of being the victim of a crime, we should all be so lucky to have such a thoughtful and measured jury. Some might disagree with their outcome, but this verdict represents the crimes that Knott’s peers agreed she had committed. Knott exercised her right to a trial, and in this case, the justice system worked as intended. Had the jury not deliberated and compromised, the alternative would have been a hung jury. Knott would have walked out of the courtroom not being held responsible and not facing any consequences.

Rational public discourse is a foundation of democratic nations. We should be having discussions about this horrific case, and as a community we should be angry. However, our opinions on the outcomes of these cases must be placed within the context of the criminal-justice system’s many intricacies, its capabilities, and yes, its realistic limitations. What some of us might want to see happen in this case would have significant implications for our criminal-justice system. Regardless of how you feel about the event, the plea bargains, the verdict or the punishments, we have to realize that criminal-justice issues are not as black and white as they seem.

Dr. Evan Sorg holds a Ph.D. in criminal justice from Temple University, and is a professor of law and justice studies at Rowan University and former New York City police officer.