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By Craig McCoy
POSTED: Sunday, March 17, 2013, 6:26 AM
Philadelphia prosecutors are wielding a new tool to combat the city’s “no snitch” culture – using grand juries to shield witnesses from threats by allowing them to testify in secret.
In scores of cases in 2013, the District Attorney’s Office has been deploying a 23-member grand jury to file charges in selected violent crimes – when prosecutors claim witnesses have been intimidated or are likely to face threats.
The use of the indicting grand jury means witnesses in these cases are now testifying in secret and face no cross-examination. Neither suspects nor defense lawyers are allowed in the room.
Charges are leveled by a simple majority vote of the jury. For the targeted defendants, this supersedes the standard practice, in which judges uphold or dismiss charges after preliminary hearings. Those hearings include public testimony by victims and witnesses.
District Attorney Seth Williams was the first county prosecutor in Pennsylvania to impanel such a grand jury after the state Supreme Court joined 48 other states and authorized them last year. Prosecutors in Montgomery County, Chester County, and the Pittsburgh area are exploring the idea.
“The indicting grand jury is a very useful, very powerful, tool for law enforcement and we are going to be using it,” Michael Noone, first assistant district attorney in Chester County, said Friday.
The two Philadelphians on the state Supreme Court – Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus P. McCaffery – pushed for the overhaul in response to a 2009 Inquirer investigative series that portrayed criminal courts as plagued by rampant witness fear, a massive number of fugitives, and the early collapse of thousands of cases yearly.
It found that in Philadelphia, defendants charged with murder, rape, robbery, and serious assaults were walking free on all charges in nearly two-thirds of all cases. Among the nation’s most populous counties, the city had the lowest felony conviction rate.
In Philadelphia, prosecutors have used the grand jury to indict about 100 defendants, including an alleged mob soldier charged with murder and a day-care operator accused in the drowning of a child.
Read the full article by Craig McCoy, click here.