In the city of Philadelphia, one prevailing problem for the prosecution in felony cases is that of witness intimidation, or fear thereof. Many witnesses are terrified to take the witness stand in a public preliminary hearing, where they could eventually be retaliated against by the defendant or by someone the defendant knows. In fact, almost two-thirds of those charged with a violent felony in Philadelphia get off without a conviction, mostly because of witness intimidation or victims refusing to come to court.
Starting today (December 18th), many witness’ fears may be alleviated, as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court approved the use of private grand juries in lieu of public preliminary hearings in certain felony cases in Philadelphia County. Philadelphia is the first county in the area to adopt this rule change, and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office expects to use it in 1,000 of the 24,000 felony cases it handles each year. A Philadelphia Deputy DA in the Pre-Trial Division says the rule change was made “to convince the public, convince these witnesses – some witnesses who have a rightful fear of the system – that we are here to protect them through the process.” It is important to note that the witness will still have to testify in court if the case goes to trial, and that this new system is supposed to only be used in “specific and select” cases where there is a serious threat of witness intimidation. The concern from the defense is twofold- will defendants remain incarcerated based upon weak evidence, and will this start us down a slippery slope of eroding defense rights?
Although protecting the identities of witnesses is certainly important, an unintended consequence may arise from this new rule. Because of the secrecy of grand jury proceedings, it may be easier for the prosecution to obtain an eventual conviction, since it will be easier for the DA to get through the would-be preliminary hearing stage without the defendant or his counsel present. Read more about preliminary hearings and the other phases of the criminal court process.