First day of Philadelphia zone courts goes smoothly

Posted: November 02, 2010

When victims and witnesses arrived at Philadelphia's main courthouse Monday, they were greeted by representatives of the District Attorney's Office and steered to a dedicated line, separate from defendants.

"We're trying to give that personal touch," said Tami Levin, director of the office's Victim/Witness Services Unit. "It makes a difference."

The day also saw a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice patrolling the courthouse. Seamus McCaffery even chastised one miscreant for trying to sneak a smoke in a stairwell.

That was about the only drama at the Criminal Justice Center on the first day of "zone court," which advocates say will do much to drive up Philadelphia's abysmal conviction rate, reduce witness fear, and help ensure that police witnesses do not miss hearings.

The system, pushed by District Attorney Seth Williams, is the most dramatic shake-up at the courts since the Criminal Justice Center was opened 15 years ago.

Criminal cases are now divided along geographic lines on six dedicated floors, and all preliminary hearings are held at the main courthouse. That means that witnesses, especially police, will merely have to go from courtroom to courtroom to testify, rather than traveling to scattered sites across Philadelphia to give evidence in police districts.

A veteran police officer, observing the changes, said he had watched cases die because he had to choose among competing subpoenas, sometimes as many as five.

"You can't be in a million places at once," said the officer, who asked not be named. "Absolutely, cases die."

The new system was endorsed by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and McCaffery as part of an agenda of change they launched in response to an Inquirer series, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied." It portrayed the city's courts as in crisis, plagued by unusually low conviction rates, entrenched witness intimidation, and an unchecked fugitive problem.

Before the advent of zone court, more than half of all preliminary hearings were held in police districts. The hearings, conducted by Municipal Court judges, establish whether the prosecution has enough evidence to hold defendants for trial in the higher-tier Common Pleas Court.

Of cases that fail in city courts each year, 84 percent die in Municipal Court - the target of the overhaul.

About 1,250 additional preliminary hearings will now be scheduled at the main courthouse each week - more than doubling the building's former caseload for such hearings.

The change meant a big influx into the Criminal Justice Center, which already had as many as 8,000 people check in on busy mornings, bound for up to 1,500 scheduled hearings or trials.

On Day One, the courthouse met the test.

"It went very well," said Court Administrator David C. Lawrence. "It was very satisfying to see people using finite resources to tackle a complex problem."

Williams has reshaped his office in tandem with the move, assigning more than 80 assistant district attorneys - a quarter of his staff - to six neighborhood bureaus, following the lines of the police detective divisions.

Along with helping police to make more court appearances, advocates say the shift will mean witnesses and victims will feel safer.

At neighborhood preliminary hearings, there were no checks for weapons, and defendants and witnesses sat close by one another in ways that some witnesses found intimidating.

At mid-morning, Williams and McCaffery surveyed the action at the courthouse, checking out numerous innovations, large and small, such as the way lines were set up to zigzag to give people the illusion of movement.

McCaffery had pushed through a similar change in 2002, when he was administrative judge of Municipal Court, but that centralization was rescinded after only three months amid myriad complaints about congestion.

This time around, McCaffery vowed, the change will stick.

After walking from floor to floor on Monday - and getting the smoker to stub it out - McCaffery said he, too, was pleased with the cooperation of court personnel, the Sheriff's Department, and the District Attorney's Office.

"Because of what these guys did," he said, "it's going to work."


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

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