Pa. high court names panel to probe Phila. courts

Posted: March 09, 2010

Alarmed at a Philadelphia court system plagued by low conviction rates, entrenched witness fear, and a high number of fugitives, the state Supreme Court has appointed a blue-ribbon panel of legal experts to help craft a reform agenda.

State Supreme Court Justice Seamus P. McCaffery said the group would work with outside consultants to develop a detailed timeline for change, with deadlines, that would address the failures outlined in an Inquirer series that depicted a criminal justice system in crisis.

In response to the stories, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille appointed McCaffery in January to lead a review of a court system that Castille said was facing "alarming and serious trends."

The panel named yesterday is a key part of a reform effort that McCaffery said could bring a "sea change" for the Philadelphia court system.

"There is a commitment from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to do everything that's in our power" to fix the system's failings, McCaffery said.

The nine panel members named to tackle those issues have broad experience in criminal justice. They include current and former judges, former prosecutors, and veteran defense lawyers, including the former head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia.

The panel members, all volunteers, are:

Former Common Pleas Court Judge John L. Braxton, who served on that court from 1981 to 1995. A former city prosecutor who led the Municipal Court unit in the District Attorney's Office, he now works as an arbitrator and mediator.

Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor Jr., the county's district attorney from 2000 to 2008.

Steven L. Chanenson, a law professor at Villanova University and a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. He is a member of the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing.

A. Roy DeCaro, a former federal and city prosecutor who now works as a plaintiff's trial lawyer in civil cases.

Charles J. "Joey" Grant, a defense lawyer and former federal public defender. He was also a top city homicide prosecutor.

Michael J. Kane, a former state and federal prosecutor who is executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner, the former head of the Defender Association and a former Pennsylvania deputy attorney general.

Walter M. Phillips Jr., a former city, state, and federal prosecutor who won renown fighting police corruption in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s. Now a criminal-defense and civil litigator, he is also chairman of the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

Alan M. Rubenstein, a Bucks County Court judge and the former district attorney of Bucks County.

Members of the panel said yesterday they welcomed the chance to participate.

"This is vitally important work," Rubenstein said. "The problem seems to be one which is extreme."

Castor said he hoped the panel could help overhaul a city court system that he said was "causing criminals to go free."

He said he was disturbed by the findings of the newspaper's December series: "I think The Inquirer's expose is a starting point. I read that with horror."

Among other issues, Castor said he was troubled by the pervasive problem of witness fear in Philadelphia. He urged prosecutors to select key cases and send a tough message that witness intimidation will not be tolerated.

Chanenson said he saw a role for the courts in trying to curb threats against witnesses.

"Certainly, the courts are a partner in this effort," he said. "It goes to the heart of what the courts do."

He also said the panel could explore what underpins the system's low conviction rates. He said this had to be done carefully.

"For a host of reason, you never want to evaluate prosecutors solely on their win/loss record," Chanenson said.

He said it was also important to understand why so many cases collapse without rulings on their merits. "It is at least of concern to know when and why these cases are not going forward," he said.

An Inquirer review of thousands of criminal court records found that nearly two-thirds of all violent-crime cases in the city end without a conviction on any charge.

When cases fail, they largely do so in the lower Municipal Court. Of cases that collapse, 83 percent do so there.

DeCaro said the District Attorney's Office could pursue more cases through grand jury indictments, which he said would spare some witnesses from court appearances. Phillips has also urged this approach.

Braxton said he was concerned about the city bail system's failures.

"Bail has to mean something in Philadelphia," he said. "Otherwise, the system has devalued itself."

Philadelphia, with 47,000 long-term fugitives, has one of the nation's highest fugitive rates. As The Inquirer disclosed, the courts have made virtually no effort to go after forfeited bail - and fugitives have run up an uncollected tab of $1 billion.

Lerner, as a Common Pleas Court judge, said he was looking forward to taking a step back and examining the courts as a whole.

"I've spent almost 45 years working in various positions in the Philadelphia criminal justice system, and there's nothing I would rather do with whatever I have left in my career than to assist in an effort to improve the system," he said.

To bring about change, the state Supreme Court can simply direct local judges to modify their courtroom practices. In some areas, the court may have to issue a formal order.

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," McCaffery said. "We want to make sure this is a quality analysis that's going to say, 'This is what we've found, and this is what needs to be done.' "


Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.

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