Court reforms focused on justice

Announcing a system of changes to dramatically reshape the Philadelphia courts are Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille (center), Justice Seamus McCaffery (left), and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)

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.

Most of the focus has been on Municipal Court, where cases collapse at the hearing stage amid delays, some intentional, that wear down witnesses who must return to court again and again. By centralizing most preliminary hearings at the Criminal Justice Center, officials hope to iron out some of the logistical snags. Prosecutors also have been given more time to prepare for hearings — as have defense counsel.

The latest move to drop the requirement that crime victims testify at preliminary hearings could reduce the number of dismissals on procedural grounds alone. The hope is that it sends defendants’ attorneys the message that stalling tactics won’t be an effective defense strategy.

As for criticism that the new rules are less fair, prosecutors still must prove their cases beyond a reasonable doubt when defendants face trial. Crime victims also will have to appear in court at that time. Thus, both justice and defendants’ right to due process should be served.

Reducing the hassle factor for witnesses is only part of the problem if they are too frightened to come to court, though. So the high court’s publication of a new manual with instructions to help county judges detect and prevent courtroom attempts to scare witnesses is another important step.