A major overhaul of court procedures ordered by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and his colleagues represents a leap forward for crime victims in Philadelphia.
Rather than require victims to testify at all preliminary hearings, the high court freed prosecutors to rely on police testimony in cases involving car thefts, burglaries, other serious property crimes, and fraud. The justices also are making their first concerted effort to school county judges in ways to shield witnesses so that courts can get to the truth.
With the two moves announced Friday, Pennsylvania’s top court officials are taking aim at two problems that have hampered the course of justice in the city. One: the stalling tactics and other gamesmanship used by lawyers to get their criminal defendants off without a court’s actually weighing any of the evidence. The other: a distant and more sinister cousin that comes in the form of witness intimidation, as practiced by crime suspects and their confederates.
Both problems have led to a court system where thousands of cases fall apart on technicalities — resulting in one of the lowest conviction rates in the country. The problems were revealed by a series of Inquirer articles in late 2009, “Justice Delayed, Dismissed, Denied.” In direct response, court officials have implemented a number of major reforms.