Panel praises Philadelphia court reforms but says more is needed

State Sens. Stewart Greenleaf (right), Michael Stack were on the panel probing the courts.
State Sens. Stewart Greenleaf (right), Michael Stack were on the panel probing the courts. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 19, 2012

A special advisory committee studying how to overhaul the Philadelphia criminal justice system praises the "remarkable series of reforms" implemented to transform the system in the last two years but says more change is needed to protect frightened witnesses and make sure suspects don't duck court.

In a 67-page draft report, the committee - established by the state Senate in response to an Inquirer investigative report on the courts - urges the creation of grand juries with the power to indict as a way to spare witnesses from having to give public testimony. It also says judges should be required to try defendants in absentia when they skip court.

The panel recommends numerous other tactics to lessen fear among victims and witnesses, ranging from installing more security cameras in the city's main courthouse to broadening access to the state's victim-assistance fund to steer money to witnesses who need to relocate.

"Fear of reprisal for cooperating with law enforcement pervades the city's criminal justice system and its streets," says the draft report, obtained by The Inquirer last week. "This is unacceptable."

In a four-part series published in December 2009, The Inquirer reported that the Philadelphia criminal justice system was in crisis, plagued by rampant witness intimidation, a massive fugitive problem, some of the nation's lowest conviction rates for violent crimes, and the dismissal of thousands of cases each year without a ruling on the merits.

Among other responses, State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, longtime chairman of the Judiciary Committee, won unanimous Senate backing in early 2010 for a volunteer panel to examine the issues raised in the newspaper's project, titled "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied."

The advisory committee has more than two dozen members, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law professors, victim advocates, private bail executives, and more. They include Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams and Ellen T. Greenlee, head of the Defender Association, which represents people too poor to hire a lawyer.

Greenleaf, a Republican whose district includes parts of Bucks and Montgomery Counties, declined to comment Friday, saying he had not read the draft, prepared by Senate staff.

The report began circulating among panel members last week. The members, who can accept, reject, or modify any part of the draft, are expected to subject the issues to a last round of debate before issuing a final report shortly.

The draft report described the Inquirer series as a "scathing indictment" that had "galvanized a vigorous response from the stakeholders in Philadelphia's criminal justice system."

"While disagreeing with some details of the picture limned by the Inquirer articles," the draft said, "all concurred that the articles had pointed out real defects and that the system would need to greatly improve its performance in order to regain the public's confidence."

Immediately after the paper published the project, the state Supreme Court launched a succession of reforms - changes that the draft report called "remarkable." Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a former city district attorney, and fellow Justice Seamus P. McCaffery, a former homicide detective and top judge in Philadelphia Municipal Court, launched an overhaul they said was needed to fix a system stacked against victims and witnesses.

They imposed a sweeping set of new court rules aimed at making sure more cases went to trial and were not dismissed early because of witness fear and fatigue or gamesmanship by defense lawyers. Most recently, they announced the first revision of Philadelphia bail guidelines in 17 years and established a special Bench Warrant Court to jail fugitives.

Williams also shook up his office. Among other changes, he has put more experienced prosecutors in the unit that approves charges and reviews the work of detectives.

According to new figures compiled by Supreme Court reform consultant William G. Chadwick and his aide, Laura A. Linton, the "held for court" rate has jumped to 65 percent this year for most violent crimes, up from 52 percent in 2009.

In the draft report, the so-called Greenleaf committee said a big blow could be struck against witness intimidation by having the Supreme Court or legislature grant prosecutors the power to indict suspects using grand juries in selected cases.

For such cases in Philadelphia, that would wipe out the need for public preliminary hearings in which Municipal Court judges decide whether there's enough evidence to hold defendants for trial in the upper Common Pleas Court.

"Under the city's current system, witnesses and victims of crime often have to appear multiple times at preliminary hearings, because it is not uncommon for hearings to postpone several times," the draft says.

At the hearings, "they find themselves in close quarters with the defendant against whom they are to testify as well as the defendant's friends and associates."

Under the proposal, witnesses would still have to appear at public trials in Common Pleas Court and face cross-examination.

The proposal's key advocates before the panel were two former top prosecutors, A. Roy DeCaro and Walter M. Phillips Jr. In an analysis prepared for the committee, they pointed out that indicting grand juries are in use federally and in every state but Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

On Friday, Phillips, a former chairman of the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency, said he was buoyed that his recommendation was in the draft report.

"We need indicting grand juries to protect witnesses from retaliation and from fear of testifying," he said.

In November, an advisory legal panel to the state Supreme Court urged it to authorize such juries, and the court is now considering doing so.

Castille could not be reached for comment Friday.

McCaffery endorsed creation of indicting grand juries last week in an interview. He also endorsed another idea Phillips advocated - requiring city judges to hold trials in absentia in cases in which defendants go on the lam.

Under Phillips' proposal, defendants would be warned explicitly early on that their trials would go on without them if they run.

Under current rules, judges can go forward with trials in absentia, but they rarely do. Some critics say pushing ahead with such trials threatens basic due process, such as defendants' right to decide whether to have a jury trial.

In its series, The Inquirer spotlighted how a third of all defendants skip hearings annually in Philadelphia, with some disappearing for years and others resurfacing after only a few months. Though their skipping out wore down victims and defendants, it posed little risk for the fugitives, who faced no consequences, the paper reported.

Phillips said trials in absentia would send a message and deter others from skipping court.

"I think the word will go out on the streets that the courts mean business," he said.


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

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