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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of Pennsylvania

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday, February 28, 2019

U.S. Attorney’s Office Brings Federal Charges After the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Agrees to a Lenient Plea Deal in a Violent Robbery

PHILADELPHIA, PA – On February 28, 2019, United States Attorney William M. McSwain convened a press conference to announce charges against Jovaun Patterson of Philadelphia, who is alleged to have shot Philadelphia shop owner, Li (“Mike”) Poeng, with an assault rifle during an attempted robbery of Mr. Poeng’s convenience store on May 5, 2018.  Mr. Poeng is a refugee from Cambodia who became a U.S. citizen in 1998.  As a result of the shooting, Mr. Poeng is confined to a wheelchair.  The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office originally charged Patterson with multiple crimes, including attempted murder and aggravated assault, but then dropped the attempted murder charges and agreed to a lenient plea deal of 3 ½ to 10 years imprisonment.  The U.S. Attorney’s Office has now stepped in to bring federal charges.   

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon, everybody.  I am here today to announce criminal charges against Jovaun Patterson of Philadelphia, who is alleged to have shot Philadelphia shop owner, Mike Poeng, with a military-style assault rifle on May 5, 2018, during an attempted robbery of Mr. Poeng’s convenience store located at 300 South 54th Street.  Mr. Poeng is a refugee from Cambodia who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, and is a married father of three young sons.  As a result of the shooting, Mr. Poeng had his right leg nearly blown off and is presently confined to a wheelchair.  Earlier today, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Patterson, charging him with (a) one count of attempted robbery which interferes with interstate commerce and (b) one count of using, carrying and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.  On the gun charge alone, he faces a statutory maximum of life imprisonment and a statutory minimum of 10 years’ imprisonment, which must run consecutively to any other sentence imposed on the attempted robbery count.

I want to thank the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigated this case, and in particular, Acting Special Agent in Charge Brian Gallagher, Supervisory Special Agent John Bowman and Special Agent David Krueger, all of whom are with us today.  I want to thank the Philadelphia Police Department for its assistance in our investigation.  Thank you to Sal Astolfi, the Chief of the Violent Crime unit in my Office, who is prosecuting the case.  Thank you to Tom Malone, who is representing Mr. Poeng pro bono and helping him to navigate through the legal system.  And thank you, Mr. Poeng, for being here today.        

 Mr. Poeng’s story, and the circumstances surrounding this case, which was originally charged by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, are well known and have been the subject of much public discussion and, understandably, much outrage.  After a struggle with an armed assailant in front of his store – all captured on videotape – Mr. Poeng was shot and rendered unconscious.  His wife, who had been inside the store with the couple’s three sons, raced from the store and found her husband face down on the sidewalk, bleeding profusely.  He was rushed to the hospital, where he went into cardiac arrest and remained in a coma for weeks.  Following a long hospital stay and a period in a rehabilitation facility, he returned home in August 2018.  Mr. Poeng is now confined to a wheelchair and does not know if he will ever walk again on his own.

In July 2018, Jovaun Patterson was arrested by the Philadelphia police.  He was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, robbery–threat of immediate serious injury, possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, possession of a firearm on a street in Philadelphia, possession of an instrument of crime, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person.  After a two-minute hearing in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the District Attorney’s Office dropped the attempted murder charge, both gun charges, the simple assault charge and the recklessly endangering charge, and Patterson was sentenced to 3 ½ to 10 years imprisonment as part of a plea deal that was negotiated by the District Attorney’s Office.  In violation of the Pennsylvania Crime Victims Act, the District Attorney’s Office told Mike Poeng nothing of the deal.

When the public learned of this deal and criticism of it mounted, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office defended it – saying that withdrawal of the attempted murder charge was “wholly appropriate as the video evidence depicted a struggle involving the gun prior to its discharge.”  I have carefully considered that statement and I still do not understand it.  I guess it’s supposed to mean that because Mike Poeng decided to fight for his life and to protect his wife and children, the person who shot him somehow deserves a break.  As for the sentence imposed, the District Attorney’s Office spokesman went on to state that it, too, was “wholly appropriate.”

When public criticism of the sentence continued, the District Attorney’s Office tried a different approach.  This time, the Office blamed the assistant district attorney working on the case.  The District Attorney’s Office spokesman claimed that “the assigned ADA made two mistakes. First, she did not contact the victim prior to the plea . . . and second, she did not get authorization from her supervisor to convey the plea offer.”

What does that explanation tell us?  It tells us that nobody in leadership at the District Attorney’s Office even knows what’s going on in plea negotiations or in the courtroom in significant violent crime matters.  In the absence of supervision, however, the assistant district attorneys certainly know that they are to pursue deals that will please the District Attorney or they risk losing their jobs, and there is no doubt that the assistant district attorney in the Patterson case did exactly that – offering a lenient 3 ½ to 10 year deal because she thought that reflected the new priorities of the District Attorney’s Office. 

Whether this plea deal was approved in advance or not, nobody in leadership at the District Attorney’s Office should be blaming the assistant district attorney.  The first principle of running a prosecutor’s office – or any office, for that matter – is that the leader of the office is responsible for everything that the office does or fails to do.  Running a large prosecutor’s office comes with public scrutiny and can come with public criticism.  Leaders take personal responsibility.  They don’t blame the people who work for them.

Mike Poeng deserves justice.  The “new” District Attorney’s Office was not able to provide it to him.  He will now have his chance to be heard in federal court.

And what has the “new” District Attorney’s Office meant for Philadelphia more broadly?  Potential criminals on the streets of our City are not stupid.  They pay attention to what is happening at the District Attorney’s Office.  When the District Attorney begins his tenure by summarily firing the Office’s most experienced prosecutors (and casually maligning them as they exited the building), when the Office is woefully understaffed, when the new hires at the Office share their boss’ anti-law enforcement philosophy, when the Philadelphia Police Department absorbs constant unfair criticism from the Office, when the Office routinely violates state law by not communicating with victims of violent crime, when the Office consistently undercharges violent crime cases, when it offers sweetheart deals to violent defendants, when its overall stated priority is “decarceration,” when it leads the charge for lenient bail conditions, when the Office issues a memorandum of “new policies” that reads like something written by a radical defense attorney, and when the District Attorney refers to himself as a “public defender with power” – violent criminals take notice of all of that.  And they become emboldened.  They think they can literally get away with murder.

Sadly, there are likely to be terrible consequences for public safety in Philadelphia as a result of all of this.  The only way to effectively deter homicide and other violent crime is to put fear into the hearts of those who would commit such crimes – fear of the law enforcement consequences.  The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office isn’t putting fear into the hearts of anybody who is contemplating a life of violent crime.  Instead, what’s even worse, is that the District Attorney’s Office is putting fear into the hearts of law-abiding citizens who have to deal with the terror of homicide and other violent crime in their neighborhoods.         

Unfortunately, we are seeing the results already.  In 2018, the District Attorney’s first year in office, Philadelphia endured 351 homicides, the most in over a decade, and an 11% increase as compared to 2017.  There were 1,365 shooting victims in the City in 2018, the most since 2011, also an 11% increase as compared to 2017.  Thus far in 2019, this alarming pattern has continued, as there were more homicides in January 2019 than there were in January 2018.  Just last week, an 18-year old was fatally shot in North Philadelphia, the third teenager to be killed by gunfire in the City in a week.  The chart to my left depicts the number of homicides in the City on a yearly basis from 2013 to 2018.  [Display the chart].

These 2018 Philadelphia homicide numbers have occurred against the backdrop of a sharp decline in homicides nationwide.  According to preliminary reports, in 2018, homicides were down approximately 7% nationwide in cities with more than one million residents.  Nearby, Chester, PA saw a 38% decrease in homicides in 2018; both Camden, NJ and Newark, NJ also experienced a decrease.  It is not a coincidence that Philadelphia saw a double-digit percentage increase in homicides in 2018, while our nearby cities, and the nation as a whole, experienced a significant decrease.  The policies of the District Attorney’s Office are undoubtedly playing a large role in this tragedy – and nobody should be surprised by it.  I’m not.

And who is it that is dying as a result of this homicide epidemic?  By and large, it’s African-Americans, as well as Latinos.  In 2018, 276 of the 351 homicide victims were African-Americans, or 79%, while 44 of the 351 were Hispanic, or 13%.  Thus, a staggering 92% of the homicide victims in Philadelphia in 2018 were African-American or Hispanic.  The chart to my left depicts the number of homicides in the City on a yearly basis from 2013 to 2018, broken down by the race of the victim.  [Display the chart].  This chart tells a most unfortunate story.  And it’s one that the District Attorney’s Office should be working hard to fix – not, as it is doing with its current policies, making worse.

The policies of the District Attorney’s Office are harming minority communities all across the City.  And the people who have the right to be the most outraged by these policies are those in the African-American community and the Latino community.  Everyone in the City – and I mean everyone – deserves to live in a safe neighborhood.

The District Attorney calls himself “a public defender with power.”  That is not his job.  He’s not supposed to be a public defender, advocating for defendants.  He’s supposed to be a prosecutor, advocating for victims and protecting the community.  I can assure you this:  the prosecutors of my Office, working with our federal and state law enforcement partners, as well as with the Philadelphia police, will do everything in our power to keep the City safe.

Thank you, and at this time, I am happy to take your questions.

Updated February 28, 2019