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Philadelphia D.A. seeks changes to fight fugitives

To combat witness intimidation and the city's massive fugitive problem, District Attorney Seth Williams and other advocates want the state Supreme Court to hand prosecutors two new powerful weapons.

To combat witness intimidation and the city's massive fugitive problem, District Attorney Seth Williams and other advocates want the state Supreme Court to hand prosecutors two new powerful weapons.

In the next year, they want the court to give prosecutors the power to convene indicting grand juries, allowing witnesses in violent-crime cases to testify behind closed doors.

This would spare frightened victims and witnesses the experience of facing defendants and their supporters in open court at early hearings.

They also want the court to order Philadelphia judges to routinely hold trials in absentia for fugitives, a move that they say would soon discourage people from skipping court in the first place.

Both proposals face opposition from defense lawyers, who argue they would strip defendants of the right to confront accusers.

But the ideas have the support of state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, a leader in an effort to raise Philadelphia's abysmal conviction rates. And Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, a former Philadelphia district attorney, said he was weighing both changes.

Each would require action by the state Supreme Court. Of the two proposals, Castille seemed more in favor of indicting grand juries, which are the norm in the federal court system.

"I think it has some merit to it," he said last week. "We're going to look at the constitutionality of it and how to go about it."

The proposal is for grand juries to hear evidence and bring charges in the most serious cases of violent crime. This would replace preliminary hearings, at which victims and witnesses testify and judges decide whether there is enough evidence to hold a case for trial.

Witnesses would still have to appear in public courtrooms and face questioning during the trial.

In grand jury proceedings, witnesses are not subject to cross-examination, and defense lawyers may even be barred from the room.

Ellen T. Greenlee, head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said she opposed the idea. She called indicting grand juries a misguided remedy for witness intimidation, a problem that she described as "highly overblown."

Walter M. Phillips Jr., a former state and federal prosecutor, said that witness fear was pervasive in Philadelphia, and that the change would combat it.

"It would be of enormous benefit to witnesses and victims," he said. "There's an awful lot of intimidation in going to preliminary hearings."

Phillips, as a member of the panel advising the state Supreme Court, has written detailed reports endorsing indicting grand juries and trials in absentia.

Indicting grand juries were abolished in Pennsylvania in 1976, a move that was billed as a reform to improve court efficiency. Critics said the grand juries were redundant because judges were already holding defendants for trial at preliminary hearings.

Under the new proposal, counties could choose whether to use them. Williams said he would impanel indicting grand juries only in cases of violent crime involving the most fearful witnesses.

He said he favored widespread use of trials in absentia.

State law already allows judges to conduct trials without a defendant present, but judges have been reluctant to do so in great numbers.

In his report, Phillips predicted the policy would lead to "a dramatic drop in the fugitive rate in Philadelphia."

He said judges should bluntly warn defendants that if they fail to show up for trial, the trial will go on without them.

"Word will unquestionably get out on the street that the courts mean business when it comes to skipping bail," Phillips wrote.

Still, judges, already facing crowded dockets, may not be eager to hold trials for defendants who are not there. And the defense bar is wary.

"We never should be in favor of trying people when they are not present and cannot participate in the process," said Michael J. Engle, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Trials in absentia should be the exception, not the rule."

Williams disagreed.

"This is about a person who committed a crime against the peace and dignity of the commonwealth," he said. "We've got to play hardball with these people."