Author: Tom Hogan
Whether you’re a citizen or a police officer, the increasing number of inexperienced prosecutors in the United States should alarm you. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, for example, offers sobering proof of the dangers of putting unqualified but politically ambitious people in charge of life-or-death decisions.
Prior to taking office in 2016, Shapiro had never served as a prosecutor, or even as a criminal defense lawyer. His only experience was in politics. He worked as a legislative staffer in Washington, served as a state representative, and took a turn as a suburban Philadelphia county commissioner. Then, with backing from Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Michael Bloomberg, he won election as state attorney general.
Shapiro’s inexperience and zeal for publicity was immediately apparent after he took office. In 2017, he announced charges against a “million-dollar heroin ring.” The charges were dismissed because his office had failed to seal wiretapped recordings, a basic requirement any veteran prosecutor would have fulfilled. Shapiro tried to modify the official seal of the attorney general’s office to incorporate his name, an embarrassing publicity stunt. Later, he announced that he had arrested a local sheriff and her boyfriend for misusing charitable donations – only to allow both defendants to plead no contest, not even admitting to their guilt, then avoiding both prison and probation.
Shapiro’s lack of training as a prosecutor came into sharpest focus when he took up a case against an Amtrak engineer, Brandon Bostian, in 2017. Two years earlier, a train that the engineer was driving derailed on a curve, killing eight people and injuring 200 more. The engineer had a sterling performance record, and the National Transportation Safety Board found that he had no alcohol or drugs in his system and was not on his phone at the time of the crash. The train derailed because the engineer, reportedly distracted by an incident with a nearby train, was going too fast. Then-Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, an experienced prosecutor, called the case a tragic accident and declined to charge the engineer. Amtrak settled a civil lawsuit by paying $265 million to the families of those killed or hurt in the crash.
The case was referred to Shapiro’s office in 2017 after a judge contested Williams’ decision. Shapiro announced charges against Bostian, including eight counts of involuntary manslaughter – going well beyond what the Philadelphia judge requested.
At the first preliminary hearing in the case, a judge dismissed all the charges, finding that the incident was “more likely an accident than criminal negligence.” Shapiro appealed. In 2019, another judge dismissed the case for a second time, calling Bostian’s conduct a mistake, not a crime. Shapiro appealed again. Finally, the case went to trial – but it took a jury just 90 minutes of deliberations to acquit the engineer, rejecting every one of Shapiro’s charges.
A 90-minute “not guilty” is an extraordinarily swift rebuke for a prosecutor in such a high-profile case. Brian McMonagle, Bostian’s defense lawyer, called Shapiro’s criminal prosecution an “obscenity.”
There was a time in the United States that it would have been almost inconceivable for an inexperienced prosecutor to be elected to run a complex organization like a district attorney’s office or attorney general’s office. Prosecutors were expected to hone their craft for years in junior positions, trying cases before trying to run the show. But now, prosecutors’ offices in cities as large as San Francisco and Philadelphia are run by people with no experience. As a result, the City by the Bay has devolved into a crime-ridden metropolis of homeless encampments, and the City of Brotherly Love has shattered its previous record for homicides.
Undeterred and unchastised, Shapiro is now running for governor of Pennsylvania, and he faces no challenger for the Democratic nomination. If Shapiro has learned one lesson as attorney general, it is that incompetence is no disqualifier for higher office.
Tom Hogan has served as a federal prosecutor, local prosecutor, and elected district attorney. He is currently in private practice.