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Must keep witnesses safe

The Philadelphia courts are plagued by one the nation's lowest felony conviction rate, often due to witness intimidation. City officials have neither the funding nor the resources to create new identities for people too scared to testify for the prosecution.

But a proposal now gaining momentum to have the courts return to the use of secret, indicting grand juries in select criminal cases would provide witnesses with a much-needed measure of anonymity in the early stages of trial proceedings.

Safeguarding the identity of witnesses might, in turn, make all the difference in getting a conviction when there is a justifiable fear of retaliation.

A state Senate advisory panel last week continued to mull over possible reforms that were suggested in response to problems detailed by the Inquirer investigative series "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied." The committee heard a compelling case for using a grand jury in some situations, rather than holding the traditional preliminary hearing.

With witnesses testifying behind closed doors, a grand jury would weigh whether there was a reasonable chance that the defendant was involved in a crime, and therefore should stand trial on charges brought by prosecutors.

As former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Walter M. Phillips Jr. argued before the panel, the advantage would be that defendants wouldn't learn the identity of key witnesses until closer to a trial date. That could reduce the likelihood that a witness would be threatened or pressured in any way before trial.

That's very important in a city where in some neighborhoods, you dare not break the "Don't Snitch" code.

The restoration of grand juries, phased out decades ago to streamline court procedures, is favored strongly by District Attorney Seth Williams and by a state Supreme Court justice working on the court reforms.

But it's opposed as vigorously by the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Its objections may be overblown, however, since prosecutors wouldn't be able to resort to a grand jury without first establishing a risk of witness intimidation.

In most instances — even in Philadelphia — prosecutors would be likely to go the now-typical route of an open preliminary hearing, if only because of the logistics of using a grand jury.

Phillips, a former chairman of the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency, also urged that the panel recommend judges warn defendants that they could be tried in absentia if they become one of the thousands who skip bail and fail to show for trial.

But that's a far less assured tactic for dealing with the city's fugitive rate. Trials in absentia should be reserved for defendants like convicted murderer Ira Einhorn, who openly flout the justice system, rather than try to hide from it. Plus, it would be better if the city first gauged its success in stemming the fugitive rate through its new warrant court and the planned addition of more private bail bondsmen.

There's good reason, though, for the Supreme Court's full review of the indicting-grand-jury proposal to see how it could be implemented, if only on a trial basis.