U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday that he supports making the intimidation of a state witness a federal crime and would like to see federal grants made available to assist the city's witness-relocation program.

Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs, made the comments at a hearing he held on witness intimidation in response to an Inquirer series last month that detailed problems plaguing the city's criminal-justice system.

Not to be overshadowed by Specter, his rival in this May's Democratic Senate primary, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, of Delaware County, announced two days ago he was going to hold a separate forum to address problems in the criminal-justice system on the same day as Specter's, but in the afternoon.

At Specter's morning hearing at the National Constitution Center, defense attorney Michael Coard said he disagreed that new legislation is needed to make intimidation against state witnesses a federal crime. Two state laws already exist allowing for witness intimidation or retaliation to be charged as felonies, he said.

Prosecutors at the federal level have better conviction rates because they have more resources, not because they are better at their jobs than their city counterparts, he said.

He also said it would be "unfair and unconstitutional" to streamline preliminary hearings to allow police officers to testify in place of victims or other witnesses, as some officials in the justice system suggested after the Inquirer series ran.

Two parents whose children were murdered also testified before Specter. Ted Canada's son Lamar, 18, was killed in July 2005. Johnta Gravitt, 18, a witness, was killed 10 days after testifying at a preliminary hearing in this case.

Canada suggested to Specter: "Why not let the witnesses testify via video? . . . I'm sure with today's technology, it could be done."

Specter, a former Republican Philly D.A., was trying to better understand the definition of "a snitch" in today's society. At times, he got a bit uppity with panelist Richard Frei, an associate professor of psychology at Community College of Philadelphia.

Frei tried to explain how some communities like to police their own, and mentioned how residents in Kensington took justice into their own hands last year when they beat up a man accused of raping an 11-year-old girl. Specter then jumped in and said: "Let's stick with my examples, unless you want to be elected and run your own hearing."

At Sestak's afternoon hearing in a Center City office building, Temple criminal-justice professor John Goldkamp suggested that the "reliance on cash bail should be reduced or eliminated," saying this system doesn't guarantee that a defendant will show up in court and is not effectively monitored.

Jules Epstein, Widener University associate professor of law, suggested that witnesses be video- and audiotaped so they can't later deny in court the statements they earlier gave to police. He also proposed having two defender associations in the city so there would be another resource for defendants if there is a conflict of interest.

After the forum, Sestak contended his approach to the criminal-justice system's problems would be comprehensive and would look at issues of education, drugs, mental health and job opportunities.