Important Changes to Pennsylvania Court Procedures Concerning Witness Intimidation

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Philadelphia, January 28, 2011:  The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office thanks Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice Seamus McCaffery and Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes, who worked with a panel of legal experts from across the state, for two new ground-breaking initiatives to rein in the burdens and intimidation facing witnesses in criminal cases.

“Criminals essentially believe if there is no witness, there is no case,” District Attorney Seth Williams said. “I am grateful that the Supreme Court and Judge Hughes are taking action to stop witness intimidation and to reduce the hardships on citizens who do their duty and come forward to report what they see.”

The first initiative is a change to statewide rules concerning the use of hearsay in criminal cases.  This change was spearheaded by Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery.  In the past, witnesses were required to attend every proceeding in the case, including not just the actual trial, but preliminary hearings.  Often, these preliminary hearings are scheduled multiple times, and witnesses had to show up every time.

Now, under the new rule, witnesses will not have to appear at all at preliminary hearings to testify to routine matters in burglary, car theft and similar cases that make up a significant portion of the criminal docket.  Instead, they will only need to testify once, at the trial itself, where the guilt or innocence of the defendant will be finally adjudicated.  The rule will greatly reduce both “burnout” and the opportunity for intimidation against witnesses who have repeatedly had to rub shoulders in crowded courtrooms with the people who committed crimes against them.

“The new rule will affect over 5,000 witnesses a year in Philadelphia, who will no longer have to make unnecessary trips to court for preliminary hearings,” said Justice McCaffery.  “It is another step in our efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Philadelphia.”

The second initiative stems from a grant provided by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to fund the writing of a “bench book” on witness intimidation.  The publication is being distributed to judges and the courts across the state this week. It will serve as a manual to help spot signs of intimidation and it explains legal options in order to proceed with holding defendants accountable for their terrible actions.

The Honorable Renee Cardwell Hughes served as the head of an editorial panel appointed to address the matter.  Judge Hughes worked with Walter M. Phillips, Jr., Chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), PCCD Executive Director Michael Kane, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judges Glenn Bronson and Gwendolyn Bright, Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney John Delaney, defense attorneys Michael Schwartz and Benjamin Eichel of Pepper Hamilton LLC, and former Senior Deputy State Attorney General Stuart Suss to complete the book.

Suss served as a Deputy District Attorney in the Chester County’s District Attorney’s Office for 18 years, is a legal educator and co-authored a book on the issue of “mandatory sentencing.” He was the primary drafter of the new Witness Intimidation bench book.

Witness intimidation affects nearly every violent crime case in Philadelphia. It’s problematic for both prosecutors and judges, when fearful witnesses fail to show up for court or change their stories on the stand. There are many cases that are either not solved or do not result in a successful prosecution because of the lack of willing, truthful witnesses.

“Justice is the search for truth in an environment that respects the rights of all parties to the system.  Truth cannot be spoken in fear,” said Judge Hughes.  “Witness intimidation strikes at the very heart of our system of criminal justice crippling our ability to function fairly, decently and with integrity.  It can not be tolerated.”

Judge Hughes, who handles homicide cases, has seen this problem first hand. In fact, she believes the problem has worsened, in that it goes beyond verbal and physical threats. Hughes and many other judges have banned the use of electronic devices in the courtroom as a way to prevent digital witness intimidation via social media, cell phones and BlackBerries.  Just this past week, Judge Hughes held in contempt a courtroom spectator who was caught taking pictures of witnesses with his cell phone, and sentenced the man to several months in jail.

This all comes at a time when lawmakers in Philadelphia and at the state level are recognizing the need for stronger witness protection. State lawmakers gave the City an additional $230,000 last year to fund a witness relocation program.  Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter also gave city prosecutors $200,000 for witness protection in June 2010.

“The additional money is vital to help witnesses and to successfully prosecute cases in Philadelphia,” the District Attorney said. “The new bench book is a huge step forward to identify those who try to intimidate witnesses and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law.”