2010-06-17 / Local & State

Official: Revive Indicting Grand Juries In Philly

PHILADELPHIA (AP) – A former top prosecutor says Philadelphia should revive the practice of using grand juries to bring indictments in some violent crime cases as a way to boost convictions and reduce witness intimidation.

Walter Phillips Jr. says the practice would spare many terrified witnesses from having to testify at preliminary hearings. Such hearings are now the key early proceedings in which a judge decides whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Phillips, a special prosecutor in political corruption cases in the mid-1970s, told a state Senate committee last week that Pennsylvania and Connecticut are the only states that do not have indicting grand juries, and federal prosecutors also use them. Such grand juries were abolished in Pennsylvania in 1976 with the aim of streamlining the court system.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who took office in January, has endorsed the proposal. Phillips is pushing the idea as a member of a panel appointed by the state Supreme Court to look at ways to overhaul Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.

But defense attorney Bernard Siegel says going back to using indicting grand juries would unfairly strip away the rights of defendants and delay them facing their accusers in open court. Siegel condemned any attempt to threaten or harm witnesses but said he believes it is “not a critical problem’’ in Philadelphia.

Also cool to the proposal was state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is looking at ways to change the Philadelphia courts.

“The preliminary hearings play a legitimate first role,’’ he said. “They weed out cases.’’

A series in The Philadelphia Inquirer in December said defendants in nearly two-thirds of all violent crime cases were going free on all charges, and city prosecutors had one of the nation’s lowest conviction rates. Veteran prosecutors and judges were quoted as saying that threats against witnesses had become routine.

Such threats have often been relayed during preliminary hearings in police districts, where witnesses frequently mingle with defendants and their friends and family. Williams recently proposed moving all such hearings to the Criminal Justice Center in Center City.

Phillips also argued that many witnesses may not even have to show up for the grand jury in the first place. For more than half a century, he testified, “courts have held that hearsay evidence is admissible before a grand jury.’’

Residents of the commonwealth are familiar with investigative grand juries, which local and state prosecutors have long used to dig into corruption, corporate wrongdoing or complex issues. But such investigative juries can only recommend charges rather than actually bringing them.

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