Panel urges funding of a witness-intimidation crackdown for Phila. courts

Seth Williams helped shake up the court system.
Seth Williams helped shake up the court system.
Posted: January 09, 2013

Pennsylvania should give extra money to the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to pay for a team of prosecutors and detectives with the sole mission of cracking down on witness intimidation, a state Senate advisory panel recommended Monday.

In a 105-page final report, the committee, made up of judges, law professors, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and other experts, also urged that state law be rewritten to permit the Victim Assistance Program to also help relocate witnesses to crimes.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, the driving force behind the creation of the advisory panel on overhauling the Philadelphia criminal justice system, said he wanted to review the recommendation about funding a special prosecutorial unit. But he said he was already prepared to propose legislation to open up the Victim Assistance Program.

"We have to do something to help them protect the witnesses who have been subjected to significant intimidation," said Greenleaf, a Republican who represents part of Bucks and Montgomery Counties. "We have to be of help to them."

Greenleaf, the veteran chair of the Judiciary Committee, won unanimous Senate approval in 2010 to create the volunteer advisory committee. He acted in response to an Inquirer investigative series that portrayed the Philadelphia criminal justice as in crisis.

The series, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," said city courts were plagued by rampant witness fear, a massive fugitive problem, some of the nation's lowest conviction rates for violent crime, and the early dismissal of thousands of cases each year without any rulings on their merits.

After The Inquirer published the project, newly elected District Attorney Seth Williams and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shook up the Philadelphia system.

Williams reorganized his office, reassigning prosecutors to pursue cases by neighborhood and overhauling how charges were filed.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and fellow Justice Seamus McCaffery - the two Philadelphians on the high court - implemented numerous rule changes aimed at making sure more cases went to trial.

Most recently, the District Attorney's Office has been gearing up to start using grand juries to indict defendants in cases involving violent crimes. The Supreme Court approved such juries as a step aimed at sparing frightened witnesses in selected cases from public testimony early in the judicial process.

In its report, the advisory panel saluted many of the changes of the last two years, including the use of indicting grand juries.

Temple University law professor David Sonenshein, who chaired the advisory panel, said Monday that the Philadelphia criminal justice system had clearly been beset by deep problems, but that key decision-makers seemed to be fixing key issues, as indicated by such trends as a drop in dismissal rates.

"The numbers are preliminary," he said, "but what I've seen are almost all positive."

While the panel reached agreement on most issues, members could not agree about whether to encourage a much heavier use of private bail in the system.

Critics say reliance on private bail puts a price tag on justice. Advocates say commercial bail firms do a far better job at ensuring that defendants show up for court.

In a stinging dissent, one panelist, Brian J. Frank, a top executive in a bail-insurance firm, said the committee improperly played down the "abysmal" court-appearance rate for Philadelphia defendants and seemingly embraced a pie-in-the-sky pretrial program that could cost taxpayers as much $144 million. That's more than 10 times the current expense.

The fight over bail programs aside, Williams said he welcomed the panel's report: "It reaffirms that we're moving in the right direction."

Williams said extra funding to tackle witness-intimidation would swiftly be put to use. The panel recommended a $400,000 annual grant.

"I just talked to the father of a son whose car was carjacked. He received a graze wound because they shot at him through the window," Williams said. "The son is terrified. He doesn't want to go to court."

Aided by an infusing of money from the Nutter administration, the district attorney's witness-services unit relocated nearly double the number of people last year compared with 2011. It helped about 150 families last year, according to Leland Kent, executive director of the unit.

It made sense, he said, to expand the Victim Compensation Program. But he cautioned that the program was already swamped by victims' needs.

"Sure, we can expand it," Kent said, "but its funding is really limited."


Contact Craig R. McCoy

at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.

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