Panel starts looking for Phila. courts fixes

Posted: September 25, 2010

A highly diverse panel of competing players in the Philadelphia criminal-justice system - defense lawyers, prosecutors, police, and others - on Friday began the difficult job of finding a consensus on how to reform the city's troubled courts.

In its first session, the two dozen volunteers, named to a special Pennsylvania Senate advisory panel, seemed to agree that far too many cases were collapsing without any decision on their merits.

If more cases were to go to trial, "everyone will get justice - the accused, the victim, the public," said E. Marc Costanzo, a senior prosecutor with the state Attorney General's Office.

He said he was concerned not only about the court's low conviction rates, but "the dismissal and disposal rates of cases before they even get close to conviction or acquittal."

In summary, Costanzo said, the group must answer this question:

"What is it about the system that's delaying or denying justice both to the victims and the defendants?"

The panel was created by a Senate vote at the urging of State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, chairman of the chamber's Judiciary Committee. He acted in response to an Inquirer series that documented a court system beset by low conviction rates, widespread witness intimidation, and a massive number of fugitives.

The newspaper reported that Philadelphia had one of the lowest felony conviction rates among big cities and that almost two-thirds of all defendants charged with violent crimes in Philadelphia were escaping conviction on all charges.

As of Friday, the panel had 28 members, including District Attorney Seth Williams and Ellen T. Greenlee, head of the Defender Association. Among the members are two law professors, five judges, two prosecutors, and seven criminal-defense lawyers.

Other panelists include John R. McGrody, a lawyer who is a top official of the Fraternal Order of Police; Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's criminal-justice adviser; and Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which advocates merit selection of judges.

Meeting for four hours Friday, the panel began hashing out the issues raised by the newspaper - and more - in a wide-ranging discussion. Temple University law professor David Sonenshein agreed to serve as its chairman.

Mark B. Sheppard, a top criminal-defense lawyer in Philadelphia, said he was willing to "check my ideological biases" in joining the Senate panel.

"While the conviction rates are abysmal in Philadelphia and the crime rates are unacceptably high," he said, any reforms could not come "at the expense of the constitutional rights of the defendant."

Municipal Court President Judge Marsha H. Neifield suggested one area of common ground for all participants - stopping threats against witnesses. Unchecked, she said, witness fear can short-circuit a case before it even gets rolling.

"Many times, justice is served by a conviction. Sometimes it is not," Neifield said. "Nothing is served if the case does not move forward."

John Goldkamp, a criminologist at Temple University who has served for decades as a key adviser to the Philadelphia courts, cautioned his colleagues not to isolate themselves within their areas of expertise.

"We have a number of symptoms of dysfunction that are interrelated," he said.

And Jeffry M. Lindy, a veteran criminal-defense lawyer, urged his colleagues to be realistic and recognize that poverty and other factors could drive crime trends far more than what happens in the courtroom.

Greenleaf, a Republican who represents parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, pushed for the panel even after the state Supreme Court appointed a dozen people to an earlier committee charged with recommending reforms.

Critics said the earlier panel - named by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, and fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery - appeared too heavily weighted toward a prosecution viewpoint.

Greenleaf promised that his panel would be more inclusive.

It is to work with the Joint State Government Commission, an independent research arm of the legislature that has examined issues ranging from wrongful criminal convictions to adoption law. It is to issue a report by December 2011 that could call for changes in state law, new judicial procedures, or more funding for the courts.

David S. John Jr., the acting executive director of the commission, told the panel that he hoped it would reach conclusions by a consensus, not a mere majority vote.

Sonenshein, the chairman, said he looked forward to the work ahead.

"I'm excited about this committee," he said. "The work is extremely important. It's an extraordinarily important thing."


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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