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Intimidation crackdown

Leading a tough movement to keep witnesses safe.

All too often in her Philadelphia courtroom, Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes has seen defendants threaten and intimidate witnesses poised to take the stand at trial.

And just as often, she has clamped down with the full force of the law.

In one case Hughes handled, a friend of a murder defendant allegedly threatened a key witness in a posting on Facebook, telling his 187 "friends" that "Philadelphia, we must get it together and kill all rat." Dajuan Fuller, 25, was arrested and charged with witness intimidation in March, and Hughes set bail at $1 million.

"We have to send a message that we will not tolerate this," said Hughes, who handles homicide cases in Common Pleas Court. "Justice does not occur in an environment of fear and intimidation. People have to feel free to speak the truth."

Hughes - who is a member of a panel appointed by the state Supreme Court to propose court reforms - has become a leader in a new mood of aggressiveness toward witness intimidation, a pervasive problem in the Philadelphia courts that touches virtually every case of violent crime. Witnesses routinely fail to appear in court, and when they do, they often recant their earlier statements out of fear.

Recently, Hughes completed a "Bench Book" for fellow judges that provides tips on spotting the sometimes hidden signs of intimidation and outlines ways to prevent and address them.

Court reformers say they hope that Hughes' manual will become the template for directives from the state Supreme Court, giving judges, tipstaffs, and other court officials clear instructions on how to spot and squelch intimidation.

In the age of cell phones and BlackBerries, threats often go digital. As a consequence, many judges are banning electronic devices from their courtrooms or carefully monitoring their use.

Hughes, for one, has seen spectators send text and e-mail messages about witnesses and their testimony and even post updates on Facebook.

"This is not something that's taught at judicial college," she said. "But I've sat homicide for so long, I've learned a thing or two."

Against this backdrop, the panel has been studying witness fear and looking for ways to combat it. One proposal under consideration in violent-crime cases is impaneling grand juries with the power to indict. This would allow witnesses to testify behind closed doors rather than appearing in open court in the early stages of a criminal case.

Another task force, appointed by State Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, also is studying witness intimidation and its effect on the court system. The group is expected to issue a report next year.

State lawmakers, citing witness fear, gave the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office a $230,000 increase in funding this year to relocate frightened witnesses. That reversed a decline in previous years and brought total state funding for the city's program to $935,000.

In June, Mayor Nutter gave city prosecutors an additional $200,000 for witness relocation, the first time the city had set aside money for the program.

In all, funding to protect witnesses in Philadelphia totaled $1.1 million this year, a 60 percent increase over last year's budget.

Prosecutors said the new money was critically important.

"People are afraid," said Leland Kent, who oversees Philadelphia's witness-relocation program. "Before they give a statement, they want to know, 'Am I going to be safe?' "

Kent said he expected the city to relocate about 60 families this year, about the same as last year. But he said the program, which provides housing and financial assistance, would be able to help people for longer periods. Traditionally, assistance has been limited to four months, a time frame prosecutors said was too short.

"We need to be able to provide people with safety and security," Kent said. "We can't pay witnesses to testify, but we can keep them safe."