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Philadelphia D.A. bypasses preliminary hearing, opts for indicting grand jury in mob killing

Eight months after Pennsylvania's Supreme Court revived the use of county indicting grand juries, in an effort to fight victim-witness intimidation, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has opted to use one in the case of reputed mob soldier Anthony Nicodemo.

Nicodemo, 41, was arrested Dec. 13 in the daytime slaying of 50-year-old Gino DePietro outside his South Philadelphia home.

The killing occurred as a federal court jury was hearing evidence in the racketeering trial of seven alleged Philadelphia mobsters. Some trial observers speculated about a possible connection between trial and killing, and lawyers feared the news might taint the jury.

As policy, prosecutors do not confirm or deny the existence of a grand jury or the target of the investigation. It is thus impossible to know if some concrete threat or the usual reluctance of witnesses in organized crime cases motivated the decision.

What is known is that Nicodemo's preliminary hearing on murder and related charges was supposed to have been held Wednesday before a Municipal Court judge.

Instead, the hearing was canceled and defense attorney Brian J. McMonagle confirmed that prosecutors had elected to use an indicting grand jury.

McMonagle said Nicodemo would have a status hearing March 11 in Common Pleas Court.

Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron, the prosecutor in the Nicodemo case, was unavailable for comment.

Court records of Nicodemo's case show orders filed Feb. 12 and last Thursday by Common Pleas Court Judge Jeffrey P. Minehart that refer to an "indicting grand jury." The documents are sealed.

In June, the Supreme Court announced the statewide revival of indicting grand juries. The high court's action, however, was directed mainly at Philadelphia, where victim and witness intimidation is widespread.

Intimidation is especially critical at a preliminary hearing, where a Municipal Court judge decides if prosecution evidence is sufficient to justify a trial.

The Supreme Court action followed a 2009 Inquirer investigative series, "Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied," that documented witness intimidation and other problems crippling Philadelphia's justice system.

Preliminary hearings are held several weeks after a crime, when witness' memories are apt to be sharper.

So, too, are emotions and fear, and prosecutors complain that allies of criminal suspects use threats or intimidation to cause a witness to refuse to testify.

In other cases, no intimidation is needed; in some crime-plagued neighborhoods, a "no snitching" culture has taken hold.

Prosecutors say indicting grand juries in violent crime cases give witnesses and victims a breather: a chance to testify outside public view. Witnesses may be called to testify in public if the criminal defendant goes to trial.

Unlike trial juries of 12 people, grand juries have 23 members. Grand juries meet in secret and generally hear only evidence presented by a prosecutor.